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)

Today women are driving heavy busses on the highways. They are servicing airplanes in the Washington airport. They are stevedores loading cargo on the docks of San Pedro, California.

Every job that releases a man to the services is considered a war job, and the lures are very great. Besides the offers of high pay and the opportunities for special training, countless advertisements cater to the pride and comfort of women doing war jobs.

Even for expectant mothers times have changed. A newspaper item reads as follows:

Expectant Mothers Sought as Knitting Firm Workers

The Minneapolis Knitting Works hoped today it had found a solution to two critical war shortages. The company advertised for expectant mothers who are “worrying about the critical shortage of baby garments,” and who would be able to work seated at a machine. “During your three months’ employment,” the advertisement reads, “you will learn how first quality ‘M’ garments are sewed. When you leave, we will shower you with a baby’s layette—3 shirts, 3 bands, 2 binders, 3 training pants, and 3 nighties. Registered nurse on full-time duty.”

The war emergency has supplied new motives as well as new opportunities for working outside the home. Numerous studies have shown that in peacetime the majority of married women who work do so because they have to, and added to these are now the many women who feel that they must work to supplement their soldier husbands’ pay. Possibly some women, especially in wartime, exaggerate their economic needs, yet the conspicuous career woman who makes the headlines should not prevent us from seeing the thousands upon thousands of ordinary women whose pay checks cover only the bare necessities.

Closely akin to the motive of need is another economic motive which looms large in the wartime picture-the desire to raise one’s standard of living. The fact that jobs are easily available and pay is temptingly high presents to many a woman an opportunity to live better than she has lived before, to eat better food, or to buy herself a fur coat.

Besides needing or just wanting the money there are other very strong motives leading women to take jobs. One of the strongest today is the genuinely patriotic desire to help win the war. Women realize that in order to preserve freedom, or “the American way of life,” every single person must play as big a part as possible in the war effort. The tragedies and suffering do not seem quite so hard, many women feel, if they can do something about the war. Especially wives and mothers of men who are actively fighting do not want to sit at home and brood. They want to keep terribly busy building the planes and making the munitions their men need so badly. They want to keep too busy to worry, and they want to play a hard part along with their men.

Bound up with this, and with the economic motives, too, is the fact that some women really prefer overalls to aprons. Women are not all alike, and there are many who have long felt restive or rebellious about housework to whom the war has brought the first opportunity for release. To them dishwashing and baby tending are dull drudgery compared with the interest and excitement and sociability o£ working in a war plant. Outside a steel mill, one sees women breaking up scrap to feed the hungry furnaces. One of them has two children, and a husband in a war job, but likes her work in spite of dust and grime. “I like being out of doors,” she says. “I like the pay and the feeling of being part of the war.”

For some women housework is monotonous. There is no definite pay or limitation of work hours. Dishes do not stay done. There are numerous interruptions so that it is hard to stick to any one thing and do a good job. Much of the work requires little skill or training. Notwithstanding modern home appliances, it is authoritatively estimated that 40 to 50 woman. hours per week are required in a household in which there are no children. The coming of a child adds on the average from 45 to 90 per cent to the required woman power. It is important to realize that housework means for many a lack of social contacts. Many women enjoy the sociability that arises from working shoulder to shoulder with other adults on the assembly line. Housework is often done alone or with only children for company.

Some wives work because they have special ability and training as doctors or journalists or secretaries, or special skills in industry, and sometimes because they want to take advantage of special training courses being offered by war industries or in particularly needed professions like nursing. Today many women with special skills, acquired perhaps and practiced before they were married, are restive at staying home and are flocking back to their old work, or perhaps taking refresher courses. And women without special skills are eagerly taking advantage of the opportunity to acquire them, thinking perhaps not only of war service but of some time in the future when they may need to have a vocation.

The federally sponsored program of Vocational Education for Employment in War Industries has organized classes in many war plants in cooperation with the school authorities as well as in local schoolhouses and on college campuses. A training-within-industry program is operated cooperatively by the War Manpower Commission and industry, and many war plants are themselves paying for the training of workers for whom they have jobs waiting. Early in 1943, for example, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation was giving 800 women an intensive training in aircraft engineering with tuition and expenses paid by the company. The Engineering, Science, and Management War Training Program, operating in more than 200 colleges in cooperation with the United States Office of Education, offers short college-level courses to women as well as men to prepare them for war jobs as engineers, chemists, draftsmen, and as scientific and technical aides. Of the 1,225,000 petsons enrolled in these courses, 185,000, or about 15 per cent, are women.

There is no doubt that there are women who work because they like to be with men, and some who use sex appeal for its economic possibilities. The sex motive is not readily geared into the structure of mechanized business. Employers worry about men wasting time in flirtation with women workers. The Fortune Survey for August 1943 sampled the views of seventeen million young women on the question “Would you rather work for a man or for a woman, or wouldn’t it make any difference to you?” The young. women questioned were classified by the interviewers as attractive or unattractive. Of the unattractive women only 31.4 per cent definitely preferred to work for a man, while 56.5 per cent of the attractive women preferred to work for a man. Their motives in so choosing are, of course, not clear.

On the other hand, most women workers have readily suppressed their feminine desire for frills, high heels, and jewelry. It has become the fashion to dress to suit the job. Loose flying hair and full skirts are sometimes a definite danger. Unbecoming goggles and visored caps are often a necessity, and women workers wear utilitarian overalls, work shirts, and low-heeled shoes without complaint.

Next section: What Will the Women Want?