Feminism is the belief that women have the same rights as men and should be treated accordingly. Organized feminism fell silent during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Working women were seen as taking what few jobs there were away from men who were the rightful breadwinners. In the 1940s, patriotism kept women away from feminist meeting halls. However, American’s involvement in World War II marked a sea change in women’s roles. They may not have realized it at the time, but women of the 1940s were planting seeds for the rebirth of feminism.
WACs, WAVEs and WASPs
Prior to 1942 women were not allowed to serve in the military except as nurses. Shortly after war was declared following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, women began signing up to serve. Approximately 350,000 women served during the war. Each branch of the service had its women’s auxiliary: the Women’s Army Corps (WACs), the Navy Women’s Reserve (WAVES), the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Women replaced men as office workers, gunnery instructors and in other non-combat roles. They trained new pilots, flew transport planes, repaired equipment and generally freed men up to fight. This gave women a taste of the camaraderie, structure and pride in service experienced by their male counterparts. Many carried that into the postwar years as organizers of women’s associations.
Rosie the Riveter
Women were crucial to the war effort in the factories, as well. The image of Rosie the Riveter proclaiming "We can do it!" symbolized women recruited to fill critical jobs in the defense industry. Like their sisters in the military, women working in civilian jobs experienced learning new skills, earning their own wages and a sense of belonging to a valued team. But they also experienced discrimination as factory owners reclassified these jobs as lower-paying "female" jobs. Many women became active in labor unions during this period although the unions initially were suspicious of them. Up to 3 million women eventually joined unions during the war. When the war ended and the men returned to reclaim "their" jobs, some women were less than enthusiastic about returning to the kitchen. Many continued their union work and later transitioned to women’s organizations.
In 1941, psychologist and feminist Dr. William Moulton Marston was hired by the creators of DC Comics to create a feminine superhero. Wonder Woman made her debut in late 1941 bringing a new vision of femininity that incorporated strength, intelligence, patriotism and beauty with a dash of Greek mythology. From the very beginning Wonder Woman was a feminist, encouraging girls to believe that with sufficient determination and hard work, a woman could be as successful as a man. She was an immediate success with an eventual readership of 10 million and appearances in four comic books and a daily newspaper strip. Young women identified with her patriotism and aspired to emulate her strength.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Post-War Feminism
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was an inspiration to women and not only in the U.S. Throughout the war, the president sent his "missus" on fact-finding missions and listened carefully to her counsel. She became his chief campaign asset and a tireless worker on his behalf. After her husband’s death Mrs. Roosevelt had thought to retire, but President Truman needed her as an adviser and an ad hoc diplomat. Her work with women’s organizations and with the fledgling United Nations provided women with a useful role model during the post-war period as they readjusted to lives as homemakers. They followed her writings in women’s magazines and listened to her weekly radio program. These outlets and her unstinting speaking tours kept her in touch with women’s concerns and encouraged women to follow her lead into more active political involvement.
- No Turning Back: The Feminist Resource Website
- Women in WWII: How Women’s Entry into the Public Sphere Helped Win the War and Influence Gender Workplace Discourse
- Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II
- Massachusetts AFL-CIO: 1941 Women Take Over Factory Work during World War II
- The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America
- School Library Journal: The Legacy of Wonder Woman
- National Women’s History Museum: Elanor Roosevelt
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