During World War II, women took on more responsibilities, moving beyond the role of wife and mother. They did this by managing the household budget: navigating their way through rationed shopping. Also, women did not have to rely on their husbands to provide extra money for food, they took charge by planting victory gardens, and preserving their own food. Some women took the next steps towards independence and racial equality by working outside the home: by working in the Woman’s Land Army and Defense Factories.
During World War II, food production became a major concern, “many men left the farms to join the military, so more workers were needed in agriculture to produce the additional food requirement during the war (15).” Women were used to fill the void, but many were skeptical that women could handle a job in farming. Finally, the government realized they needed women to help with the agricultural crisis. January 12, 1943 was Farm Mobilization Day: President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the nation. He stated “food is the life line of the forces that fight for freedom. Free people every where can be grateful to the farm families that are making victory possible (8).” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped to develop the Woman’s Land Army (WLA), following England as a model.
Women faced discrimination from the government, believing that women could not do that type of work. Finally, the government accepted the idea of women helping in farm production. Still urban (city) women faced discrimination: they were not accustomed to hard labor (2). The government used slogans to motivate women, such as “bread is ammunition as vital as bullets,” and “the bread basket and the arsenal of democracy (8).” Most women became more independent by learning first hand on the farm. For others, various universities provided classes in gardening, poultry raising, dairying, and learning how to operate a tractor (8). “The time that women worked on the farm varied. They could spend one to two weeks during their vacation period, helping during the summer or harvest periods, or spend the entire year for the WLA. The majority of women were employed seasonally on farms. It is estimated that 2.5 million women participated in the program and helped to feed the nation and her Allies (15).” A student from Mount Holyoke describes her experience
Working with the Woman’s Land Army did not pay as much as working in the defense factories. For some women that was fine, they were helping in the war effort, earning some money, and in the process becoming more independent. Other women wanted to help with the war effort, and to have more money, and working in the factories provided that. Like the rationing propaganda, the government used a similar approach when it came to targeting women. Two artists J. Howard Miller and Norman Rockwell created two different images of Rosie the Riveter. The government used these images of Rosie to promote the war effort with women (1). “Rosie was the ideal woman worker: loyal, efficient, patriotic, and pretty (1).” Composers Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a song about Rosie the Riveter. One of the stanzas goes like this:
Women faced discrimination working at the various factories: because they were women. For others, they were discriminated against because of their race. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802 in 1941, where he stated “the policy of the United States to encourage full participation in the national defense program by all citizens of the United States, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin (1).” This meant that discrimination was not allowed in the factories, but did still occur. Caucasian “white” women faced some discrimination, for the most part they were accepted. Idilia Johnson faced discrimination because of social class. She wanted to work in the factory, that’s where the money was, she was told you do not belong in the factory. Later, she learned that she was first denied a job because she was wearing nice clothes, and factory work was considered for the lower class (12). Idilia was accepted at Ohio Crankshaft, but she was not a typical Rosie. She was an assistant to the comptroller: making graphs and calculating percentiles. She describes her experience as liberating. She said “one of the things that it did for me was, I was kind of working independently and the comptroller did not hover over me, make sure I was doing everything right. And being independent and knowing that I could think for myself, I didn’t need my mom and dad to tell me what to do, I became self sufficient, and I came out of myself. Before that I had been meek, mild, if somebody said ‘Boo,’ I jumped, you know. So I became a person unto myself, and I loved it (12).” The independence that Idilia experienced gave her the confidence to enlist in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES: Navy). Signe Nakashima had a similar experience to that of Idilia Johnson. Signe worked at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation as a riveter. She said “they showed the men that, ‘Yes, we could do it. Yes, we can.’ And that had a lot to do with opening it up for women… I think it gave me more confidence to go into whatever was opened up for me (12).”
Mexican and Chinese American women were accepted more than African American women. These women felt by working in the different factories they were becoming real Americans. Connie Gonzales was a Mexican American woman who worked at Douglas Aircraft Company. She wanted to show her patriotism, working in the factory gave her this opportunity (4). Ida Escobedo shared a similar story to Connie Gonzales. Ida worked for Advanced Relay, she too wanted to help with the war effort, plus the pay was good (4). The war helped Mexican American women in society, giving them new opportunities that did not exist before. Chinese American women experience was similar to Mexican American women. They wanted to prove that they were real Americans also. Working in the factories “gave Chinese American women confidence and maturity. They found that they could do the things that men could (16).” Like other Chinese American women, Jade Snow wanted to prove that she was a real American. Working at a defense factory gave her that opportunity. Jade and her sister worked at Marinship in Sausalito, California (16).
Native American women also joined in the war effort, responding to the propaganda that the government put out. Native America women were also more accepted than African American women. Some Native American women were seen as Caucasian “white,” when applying for jobs. This was true for Faith Feather Traversie. When applying for a job at a defense factory, she checked other for nationality, since there was no American Indian. She was classified as white, because she was considered a ward of the government (5). Faith wanted to be a welder: “since welders were the highest paid in the yard, and earned about $2.67 an hour (5).” She never felt any discrimination while she was working: working with many different races, including white, Asian, and Mexican (5).
“African American women suffered both racial and gender discrimination (7).” There was still racial segregation in the factories, and the jobs offered to African Americans were dangerous and menial such as cleaning (7). Not all factories were segregated, it depended where the factory was located. Angeline Fleming was an African American woman who worked in an integrated factory: Ford Motor Company. Her job was making wings for the B-29. She said she felt more independent while she worked there. Angeline made $1.45 an hour, and that was big, she was able to help her mother and father and save some for herself (12). Eva Chenevert worked at a semi- integrated factory: Chrysler. The group Eva worked with was integrated, she was a riveter. She enjoyed her work as a riveter, and she got along with everybody (12).
Some women took the next step in their path to independence and racial equality by joining the new branches of the military for women. Click here to follow the women’s path to independence.