Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations and the Status of Women during World War II, 1981

Publishing in the same era as contemporary women’s historians such as Joanne Meyerowitz, Ruth Rosen, and Kathy Peiss, Karen Anderson helped to realign the traditionally masculine historical narrative. Unlike histories from previous decades, Rosen’s The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America 1900-1918, Meyerwitz’s Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880-1930, and Kathy Peiss’s Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York all explored women’s lives from the vantage point of their own agency. Though each work acknowledged the influence of gendered economic markets which ultimately reduced women’s choices and ability to remain independent, Rosen, Peiss, and Meyerwitz all exhibited understandings that women served as actors not just unfortunate victims. Moreover, women’s agency in these periods created spaces for future women and men. For example, the heterosocial spaces of amusement parks, dance halls, and arcades, all driven by treating and working class female interactions, influenced future dating patterns of men in women in the decades to follow. Peiss’s working women helped to reorient public spaces and the kind of heterosocial interacts that unfold within them.

In similar fashion, Karen Anderson’s Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations and the Status of Women during World War II (1981) reexamines the various roles women occupied in wartime America. Anderson argues that though some historians attribute women’s postwar employment changes simply to economics, Anderson believes that the 1941-46 period played a more prominent role in these developments, helping to accelerate the economic changes that would come after WWII. Moreover, though such studies exist in abundance today, in 1981 few historians explored the effects of living in a society with severe sex ratios. Additionally, historians had not investigated “the effects of war on sex role socialization and family structure and role divisions … “ . (11)
Importantly Anderson points out that despite continuing occupational sex segregation, a lack of appropriate child care, and the lingering negative attitudes regarding female employment, women persisted in gaining employment and opening doors for themselves and later generations. The necessities of wartime America undermined “somewhat the sex segregated labor market and the ideas that perpetuated it …” (6) Lacking national uniformity, local municipal government and attitudes greatly influenced the breath of change. Using Seattle, Detroit, and Baltimore, Anderson illustrates the influence of local factors on policies.

“Mobilization themes” employed several rationales in convincing women to pursue employment among them patriotism, the prestige of war workers, and “a stress on women’s capacities for nontraditional work.” (27) For women themselves, several factors encouraged them to find work. While patriotism remained one, others such as economic necessity, escape from the home, desire for social independence, and preventing loneliness or anxiety provide a few examples. Though rates of women’s participation in the workforce vary between Seattle, Detroit, and Baltimore, in all three “over 90 percent of the women workers living in family groups contributed systematically to family upkeep, accustoming their families to the increased financial security and material comforts that their additional income could provide.” (30) This resulted in increasing income levels and “property mobility” for women and their families. Additionally, the increase in purchasing power fit neatly into the postwar “consumer republic” that Lizabeth Cohen has described. Predictably, race intervened for some women. Employer discrimination against black women resulted in their inability to secure the kind of industrial/manufacturing jobs that their white counterparts were able to secure. For black women, the intersection of racism and sexism undermined their employment opportunities meaning they frequently were referred to domestic work and other service sectors. Older women also experienced discrimination. Women over 35 found their employment options circumscribed as employers favored younger. For example, Boeing officials in Seattle believed “women over forty could not stand the work as well as younger women…” (42)

When challenging employers on fairness and discrimination issues, the paucity of functioning feminist organizations (Anderson suggests that these organizations were busy with intercine battles at the time) lead these women to appeal to civil rights organizations, unions or the federal government (FEPC). Unfortunately, these institutions treated such issues as a secondary concern, as Anderson notes, “these groups, however, subordinated women’s issues to a variety of male defined goals and policies and constrained the amount of change generated by the war. Consequently, no vehicle for retaining wartime gains and improving women’s status as workers emerged as a result of the war experience.” (65). Unions' reaction to women paid lip service to equality but in reality never truly regarded female workers as genuine members. Ultimately, unions protected the interests of their male rank and file, “the long term needs of male workers took precedence over the prerogatives of women workers, as the postwar period would soon demonstrate. (60) Despite progress, the war failed to change “conventional ideas regarding women’s proper social and economic role.” (60) However, despite this persistent prejudice, the war provided women with a means for refuting these very biases. Women expressed an appreciation for the “economic independence, sense of accomplishment and social contacts” that came with employment.

Occupational changes brought by the war contributed to changes in the workplace, but family life experienced new developments including fears over juvenile delinquency, increased birth, marriage, and divorce rates, and increased stress from wartime conditions. However, Anderson points out that though the war brought changes, it also “reinforced and perpetuated existing role divisions and their ideological underpinnings. With its emphasis on the centrality of the male role of warrior and protector, it widened the experiential gap between men and women and reaffirmed the greater cultural value attached to male activities.” (75) During the war, fears over women’s sexual conduct proliferated. Regulation of women’s behavior became a central aspect of psychological and social welfare officials as they attempted to explain and control female sexuality. Postwar America then turned to these practices as precedents to employ.

Anderson notes the paucity of historical works that explore the “unbalanced sex ratio of the war years.” (77) Since Wartime Women’s 1981 publication, this area has received attention. For example, Beth Bailey and Farber’s The First Strange Place: The Alchemy of Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii examined the effects of such ratios on the then territory of Hawaii. Anderson, Bailey, and Farber generally agree that the absence of males increased their importance, as Anderson suggests “men became a scarce and valued commodity.” (77) Accordingly, an increase in teen marriage, going steady, and a general changes to sexual behavior were all results of this development, “in a marriage oriented but male scarce society, getting and retaining male attention and approval became an even greater preoccupation for many girls and women than it had been before the war.” (77) The push for earlier marriages proved to be no cure as the Kinsey survey illustrated that “infidelity among very young married women increased to some extent during the 1940s, making them the only group to experience such a change.” (81) Marital strains grew in this period as work schedules, women’s employment, new responsibilities for housewives, overcrowded housing, and “new opportunities for social and sexual contacts outside marriages” combined to stress many couples of the period. (81) Predictably, these stresses and others resulted in rising divorce rates. Working class families especially encountered tensions as women’s employment threatened men’s marital roles more so than in middle class homes. Anderson continues noting that “the strict separation of male and female spheres of activity characteristic of working class social organization and the exaggerated stress on ostensibly sex specific attributes were threatened by the sexual integration of the previously male blue collar workplace.” (83) In this way workplace resistance to female workers may have reflected not only individual economic labor interests but also the “ideological and cultural bases for” family authority. (83) The perceived abandonment of conventional feminine sex roles only contributed to apprehensions such that Anderson acknowledges that “war created uncertainties regarding sex roles could lead just as easily to a retreat into traditionalism as to a full acknowledgment of the implication of new behaviors.” (92)

Juvenile delinquency emerged as a point of contention as well. The lack of parental supervision worried officials as did the increasing mobility of young people generally. The increase need for labor meant that younger workers now had employment options previously denied them. Officials found this labor mobility threatening to traditional family structures and authority. Working mothers found themselves as target of criticisms as Anderson writers, “Most law enforcement and other officials cited parental neglect as the most important contributor to increased juvenile delinquency and contended that working mothers were a primary cause of such negligence.” (95) In this context, adolescent girls emerged as a distinct problem. Unaccompanied teenage girls were essentially criminalized as cities like Seattle incarcerated them out of fear of venereal disease, imposing VD tests despite the fact no laws had been broken.

Not only young girls disconcerted officials. “Victory girls”, “khacky wackies” and “free girls” represented adolescents and young women who “pursued sexual relations with servicemen out of a misplaced patriotism or a desire for excitement. She could also, however be a girl or women who, without actually engaging in sexual relations, was testing the perimeters of social freedom in wartime America in ways that suggested sexual misconduct or a vulnerability to new temptations.” (104) Social protections programs enacted during WWII by the Social Protection Division of the Office of Community War Services articulated a mission that they allege was an attempt to limit the spread of venereal disease, thus protecting public health and military efforts. However, the campaign really “encompassed a broader effort to isolate women whose conduct indicated they might be sexually active outside of the institution of marriage and to provide them with medical treatment, and if necessary, punishment and/or rehabilitative counseling so they might live more upright lives.” (104) Furthermore, the SPD identified its mission in part as “dedicated to the search for ‘incipient and confirmed sexual delinquents.’” (104) However, in order to implement VD testing for all those suspected, new “morals” laws needed to be implemented. In this way, prostitution’s definition changed such that as Anderson points out, it “came to be defined not only as intercourse for hire but also as indiscriminate or promiscuous intercourse. SPD literature constantly noted that the commercial aspect was not the critical element, that a prostitute was , in effect, any women who was sexually active despite the lack of ‘sincere emotional content’ in the relationship.” (104) New legal frameworks developed such that adolescent girls found in places or hours the police deemed inappropriate were often “questioned, turned over to juvenile court or social welfare authorities, or brought home to parents … “ (105) Of the three localities Anderson investigates, only Baltimore resisted federal interests. Baltimore officials viewed most federal programs warily, but especially the auspices of the SPD. Maryland refused to enforce mandatory VD inspections. Though Washington did convince Baltimore officials to “reorganize the judicial procedures in prostitution cases and in encouraging local judges to increase the severity of their sentences in morals cases.” (105)

Seattle seems to have implemented a model that SPD interests supported. Women and girls suspected of being ‘sex delinquents’ were tested for VD. Those infected then were placed in “various rehabilitation programs.” Younger girls and women lacking previous criminal records found themselves placed in a Rapid Treatment Center, “which offered vocational training and individual counseling in order to make them self supporting and to equip them to lead more conventional lives. Prostitutes, repeaters, and others deemed less likely to be amenable to rehabilitation were kept in the county jail until treatment.” (107) Though some resistance emerged, the courts basically acknowledged the ability of law enforcement to jail women in the name of public safety, “the means of determining which women posed potential threats to public health and the sex discrimination implicit in the enforcement of the law were not questioned.” (109)

Organizations like the American Social Hygiene Association proved little help for accused women. Like many of its peers, the ASHA viewed women as less sexually excitable, thus it remained incumbent upon the female population to control male desires. For such organizations female sexuality proved less about sex and more about emotional needs for “love, attention and excitement rather than for sexual gratification, and as a manifestation of emotional maladjustment.” (110) In such a framework, psychologists and social workers emerged as crucially imported. These occupations became responsible for “adjusting women to more repressive standards.” (111)

In lives of many women, child care remained one of the most vexing problems of the war. Since child care challenged notions of mother-child bonds, it drew criticisms from some quarters. Anderson connects opposition to the fact, government funded child care recognized the “vast changes in the social roles of women, no service generated more controversy than the wartime child care effort.” (122) Unfortunately, the government’s success rate in this endeavor proved mixed. Diffusion of authority, state and municipal legal obstacles, and jurisdictional conflicts conspired to reduce the effectiveness of government programs. In Baltimore, mothers viewed the public centers as substandard due to concerns regarding overcrowding and poor facilities. Many turned to kinship and friend networks. This proved true throughout the country. The tragedy of this failure meant that women found their wartime employment opportunities limited, leaving them less prepared for the wartime reconversion. Additionally, women who did find employment sometimes resorted to absenteeism because of an inability to find child care, thus, “prejudicing some employers against them and promoted employment discontinuity, making it difficult for many to accumulate essential job security.” (146)

For Anderson the war made a significant difference in a very short time for women. While this did not ensure linear progress it contribute to “shaping the post war decisions of women.” As the demands of the labor market changed in the postwar period, reconversion overwhelmingly benefited men over women. Returning veterans and “the reimposition of discriminatory policies on the part of employers, unions, and government agencies all contributed to the problems of women workers in the postwar period. “ (161) Still, some shifts in employment were voluntary as some women found the demands of work to be too much or the benefits too few. Interestingly, Anderson notes that middle class women “preferred jobs that were white collar, and others expressed a desire for more womanly work, indicating once again that the wartime experience could create anxieties among woman workers about their femininity.” (167) Ironically, though clearly discriminated against black women experienced success in securing positions that were confined to service employment and lower level manufacturing work. Many migrated to urban areas resulting in their increasing abandonment of agricultural and domestic work.

The postwar shift toward mass consumption made women’s employment less antagonistic as Anderson points out “the materialism of the years after 1945 was probably an even more significant cultural value than the veneration of domesticity; the good life was expensive and women had to contribute their share.” (174) Even so, like Lizabeth Cohen after her, Anderson notes the nature of the G.I. bill required wives to support their veteran husbands as they took advantage of benefits. Moreover, symbols like the Rosie the Riveter attracted a new negative sheen as psychologists suggested that “wartime changes had fostered the development of widespread individual neuroses and social maladjustments largely caused by the failure of women to accept their femininity” which really meant being subordinate to men. (177) Paradoxically, the intense focus on the family during the war and the failure of public child care resulted in maintaining “conventional attitudes regarding the role of women within the family.” (178)

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