Published Date

June 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 31: Do You Want Your Wife to Work after the War? (1944)

While Pvt. Pro and Pvt. Con may come near to blows in their debate, they must agree, whether Con likes it or not, that times are changing. Family problems are produced by social changes and often can only be solved by further changes. Perhaps the woman problem of how to get a balanced ration of work and children can never be completely solved, but attempts have been made and are being made to solve the problem.

The Nazi program in its original form insisted that a woman’s real function was to be mother and homemaker. Hitler, Goebbels, and their crowd, however, talked about “womanly work” but never seemed quite clear as to just what they meant by that phrase. They finally appointed a woman, Fran Scholz-Klink, as leader of German women, but she also was none too clear on this point. At first “womanly work” for married women seemed to be work within the home combined with motherhood. Over a million marriage loans were granted by the state to be canceled in proportion to the number of children born. But the economic demands of the Nazi program of armament and war made it difficult to carry out the original theory, and the demand for labor, especially cheap labor, was so great that during every year of the Hitler regime there was an actual increase in the number of women gainfully employed.

“Womanly work” might mean lighter work, but under war conditions restrictions were swept away and even mothers tended machines. Women were crowded out of good jobs and restricted as to university training. But the need for trained leaders on the home front, especially women doctors, tended to reverse this policy. The pendulum swung back and the exclusive wife-and-mother role for’ women remained only a theory.

In Soviet Russia the government theory has been the opposite of the Nazi one. Women are expected to work outside the home and to work in all kinds of jobs as the equals of men. They are granted a few months leave for the birth of a child, but cooperative dwellings and cooperative nurseries have been provided as far as possible to free them sufficiently from housekeeping and child care so that they can readily do outside work.

After the Russian Revolution the long years of reconstruction and industrialization provided jobs for everyone, so that there was no problem of feminine competition. The war has created an even greater need for working women, but it is possible that when peace comes the pendulum there, too, may swing back.

In the United States all sorts of theories, some of them derived in part from European experience, are being discussed and the arguments for and against them are being debated. Various possibilities are being tried out in one way or another. It may be of interest to look briefly at a few of these plans and at the ideas of the people who advocate them.

1. One is a big program of social insurance. It is rather generally agreed that the majority of working wives work from need rather than inclination. Some people have suggested that an umbrella of social insurance spread over the entire population to ward off ills ranging from the privations of unemployment to the expense of sickness and childbirth might make the working of wives more a matter of choice and less of chance. It is of course very doubtful that the expense of such a program could be borne if all the fifty million American women of working age performed only household tasks (even assuming for the sake of argument that they were willing to limit themselves to such tasks), and critics of the idea question that such an insurance would be adequate to remove the need that impels them to work.

2. Endowment of families or perhaps just mothers is another possibility that has been discussed, with much attention to European experiments along this line. The fact that the burdens of childbearing fall unequally upon families and individuals has much to do with the “woman problem.” A family with numerous children may need more income, while a childless couple, both employed, may need less than they receive. In France before the war employers contributed to a fund out of which wages were supplemented in proportion to the number of children born. In Sweden various goods and services are made available to the larger families or given directly to the children themselves. In Germany rather extensive subsidies are paid to families in proportion to the number of children, aside from the marriage loans previously mentioned.

Such practices have not been adopted in the United States, though we have certain income tax exemptions. Those who favor an endowment plan argue that if women are to be freed from dependence upon their husbands and are to achieve a more satisfactory balance of work and childbearing, the government must take a hand in what formerly was regarded as a private matter. They suggest that under the plan taxes would be taken from the unmarried, the childless, the young and the old, and the rich to provide a maternity fund as an endowment of motherhood.

According to this plan, women giving up jobs and having children, instead of paying into the fund, would begin to draw from it roughly in proportion to their prior earnings and the number of children they rear. Thus there would be an equalization of the burdens of children, and money would be available for children at the time when it was most needed. Women would be free to manage the job of child rearing with undivided attention given to children during early years. When, with the growth of children, payments ceased and taxes began again, there would be an incentive for women to take up once more their work outside the home. Pvts. Pro and Con probably would argue this last point, and Pro might assert the right of a married woman to use part of her subsidy to provide assistance in the home while she used her own special training and skill in outside employment.. Many variations in the basic idea of family endowment have been suggested by those who favor such a plan.

3. Schemes have been presented for making motherhood more of a profession, and these probably would have special interest for Pvt. Con. If more training were given for the job of homemaking and child rearing, it might gain in dignity and efficiency. The shaping of a child’s personality unquestionably demands skill, and efficient household management is a challenge even to a highly intelligent woman. The basic difficulty in educating women for what their life activity is actually to be lies in the uncertainty as to whether they will marry or not. Some people have suggested that perhaps the changes brought by the war will include a change in public opinion that will recognize greater initiative on the part of women in finding mates for themselves.

4. To put a good deal of economic production back into the home is another way, according to some people, in which motherhood might be combined with satisfactory work activity. Advocates of this idea think that many things now produced on a large scale in mills and factories could be made more happily and often better and more economically in homes by the use of small electric machines. They argue, for example, that the spinning, weaving, and sewing of textiles, and the working of many forms of wood, leather, and metal could be done on home machinery.

To some this will sound like a case of putting Humpty Dumpty together again after he was knocked off the wall when modern machinery made factory production more or less identical with efficient production. Yet others point out that power need not necessarily be transmitted by belts. They say that light machines driven by electricity might work almost as efficiently in homes as they do gathered together under a single factory roof. Possibly electric sewing machines and home workshop lathes, Victory gardens, and pressure canners are only the beginning of a restoration to women of some of the work activities taken from them by the factory.

5. Another suggestion is that of part-time work for women, which might be a solution that would meet with Pvt. Pro’s approval. The policy would be to move with the trend toward large-scale production, but with adjustments in recognition of women’s problems. War conditions already have forced the realization upon employers that to tap the working power of married women they must provide part-time employment. With women an ever larger proportion of the working force, industry would perhaps be less dominated by the man’s point of view and recognize increasingly that the work of the world includes child rearing and homemaking.

6. Yet another suggestion has to do with cooperative arrangements which might make it possible for wives to work with somewhat less annoyance to the Pvt. Cons. Again the war, with its encouragement of day nurseries and the like, has provided a push in this direction. Community heating plants, cooperative laundries, centralized food preparation, and child-care services could make the job of homemaking more compatible with the work of wives outside the home. There seems to be no good reason why married women could not, if they wished, pool their various skills. One woman’s skill in child care might take care of a dozen instead of one, while others would find it more economical to cook for a dozen or more than for three. In such ways, those who favor cooperative arrangements argue, many wives could be freed for other work.

7. Sharing of housework by men is a suggested solution which we may be sure Pvt. Con would heartily dislike. Yet there seems to be no unanswerable reason why men could not share in almost every task about the house. It seems natural that women should do most of the housework because that is the tradition from the past. If women received equal pay outside the home, however, they might very properly ask whether there is any reason why men should not share equally in the housework and care of the children. Pvt. Con probably could recruit a goodly number of males to fight tooth and nail against any such upset in the traditional scheme of things.

So there are many theories and possibilities that can be argued back and forth, with the chance of much disagreement between those who favor and those who oppose particular ideas. One thing is certain, and that is that the world after the war will not stand still. Just as the war brought changes in our ways of living, so peace is likely to bring changes. The arguments will go on. Pvt. Con will continue to argue not only with Pvt. Pro, but probably also with Mrs. Con. The age-old problem will continue both in old and in new forms. Women will continue to want babies and to want work that is satisfying. New ideas which may or may not prove effective are being debated and tried out in attempts to solve the old problem, and it seems probable that yet other ideas will be experimented with in future efforts by men and women to reconcile these two aspects of living.