During World War II, the defense industry expanded and American men mobilized for military service. Many women found jobs previously unavailable to them in aircraft plants, shipyards, manufacturing companies, and the chemical, rubber, and metals factories producing war materials. These jobs paid higher salaries than those traditionally categorized as “women’s work,” such as teaching, domestic service, clerical work, nursing, and library science. Married women were discouraged from working outside the home during the Depression to lower competition with men for limited jobs. After the U.S. entered the war, though, the Federal government encouraged housewives to join the work force as a patriotic duty. The number of employed women grew from 14 million in 1940 to 19 million in 1945, rising from 26 to 36 percent of the work force. Most industry analysts and government planners expected this situation to be temporary. At the end of the war, the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor asked women workers about their future work plans. The bulletin excerpted below revealed that most women wanted to keep their present jobs. Immediately after the war, the percentage of women who worked fell as factories converted to peacetime production and refused to rehire women. In the next few years, the service sector expanded and the number of women in the workforce—especially older married women—increased significantly, despite the dominant ideology of woman as homemaker and mother. The types of jobs available to these women, however, were once again limited to those traditionally deemed “women’s work.”
POSTWAR PLANS OF WOMEN WORKERS
That very large numbers of wartime women workers intend to work after the war is evidenced by their statements to interviewers. On the average, about 75 percent of the wartime-employed women in the 10 areas expected to be part of the postwar labor force...
These prospective postwar women workers did not, for the most part, contemplate out-migration from their areas of wartime employment. Over 90 percent of them, in most areas, looked forward to continued employment after the war in the same areas where they had worked during the war period...
In each area, the number of wartime-employed women who intended to work in the same area after the war greatly exceeded the number of women employed in the area in 1940. In the Detroit area, for example, for every 100 women who were working in 1940, excluding household employees, 155 women will want postwar jobs. About two and one-half times as many women wanted to continue working in the Mobile area as were employed in 1940...
The highest percentage of prospective postwar workers in most areas came from the group of women who had been employed before Pearl Harbor, rather than from those who had been in school or engaged in their own housework at that time. On the average over four-fifths of the women who had been employed both before Pearl Harbor and in the war period intended to keep on working after the war. Among the war-employed women who had not been in the labor force the week before Pearl Harbor, over three-fourths of the former students expected to continue working, while over half of those formerly engaged in their own housework had such plans...
Very large proportions of the in-migrant women workers planned to continue work in the areas where they had been employed during the war. Although in comparison to resident women employed in the war period smaller proportions of the in-migrants planned to remain in the labor force, the bulk of the in-migrants who did expect to work wanted to do so in the same area where they had been employed during the war. Consequently in the areas where in-migrants were important during the war, they also constituted a substantial proportion of the women who intended to work in the area after the war. In four of the seven areas where in-migrants were important, in-migrants constituted between 32 and 44 percent of the total group of women who planned to continue work; and in the other three areas where in-migrants were important, they represented between 10 and 26 percent of the women who planned to continue.
The nature of postwar employment problems is influenced not only by the number of wartime workers who expect to remain in the labor force but also by their expressed desires for work in particular industries and occupations. Postwar job openings as cafeteria bus girls, for example, are not apt to prove attractive to women who are seeking work as screw-machine operators.
The bulk of the prospective postwar workers interviewed in this survey, or 86 percent, wanted their postwar jobs in the same industrial group as their wartime employment, and about the same proportion wanted to remain in the same occupational group. Postwar shifts to other industries were contemplated on a somewhat larger scale, however, among the wartime employees in restaurants, cafeterias, and similar establishments, as well as in the personal service industries in certain areas. In the Dayton area, for example, among the war-employed women who expected to remain in the labor force, fully 36 percent of those in eating and drinking places and 30 percent of those in personal service industries said they wanted jobs in other industries after the war. . . .
In the Mobile area almost a third of the women employed in the war period were Negro. In four other areas between 10 and 19 percent, inclusive, were non-white (including some oriental in San Francisco). In the remaining five areas less than 10 percent of the war-employed women were Negro or of other non-white races.
In each of the nine areas where there were enough non-white employed women in the war period to make comparison valid, a much higher proportion of the Negro women planned to continue work than of the white women. In six areas 94 percent or more of the Negro or other non-white women who were employed in the war period planned to continue after the war. . . .
Responsibility for the support of themselves or themselves and others was the outstanding reason given by war-employed women for planning to continue work after the war. As already pointed out, about three-fourths of the wartime-employed women in the 10 areas (excluding household employees) planned to keep on working after the war. Fully 84 percent of them had no other alternative, as this was the proportion among them who based their decision on their need to support themselves and often, other persons as well. Eight percent offered special reasons for continuing at work, such as buying a home or sending children to school; and only 8 percent reported they would remain in the labor force because they liked working, or liked having their own money.
Virtually all of the single women and of those who were widowed or divorced (96 and 98 percent, respectively) who intended to remain in gainful employment after the war stated they would do so in order to support themselves or themselves and others, whereas 57 percent of the married wartime workers who expected to remain at work gave this reason. The remaining married prospective postwar workers interviewed offered reasons of the special purpose type, such as buying a home, about as often as those of the “like-to-work” type. Because married women differed so much on this issue from women in other marital-status groups, differences from area to area in the proportions of prospective postwar workers who offered each of the three sets of reasons reflect largely the relative concentration of married women in each area. . . .
That the need to work is just as pressing among some married women as among some single women was highlighted by the replies from the war-employed women on the number of wage earners in the family group. Out of every 100 married women who were living in family groups of two or more persons, 11 said they were the only wage earner supporting the family group. This was almost identical to the proportion of sole supporting wage earners among single women living with their families. The state of marriage, therefore, does not, in itself, always mean there is a male provider for the family. . . .
Source: Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, Women Workers in Ten War Production Areas and Their Postwar Employment Plans, Bulletin 209 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1946), in America’s Working Women, ed. Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon, and Susan Reverby (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), 310–12.