The Changing Roles of U.S. Women After World Wars 1 & 2

Instructor: Matthew Hill
The role that women played in American society changed following the First and Second World Wars. Women played a strategic role in each war, but also a gradual inclusiveness in public life.

Women in the First World War

Historically, wartime circumstances create a greater role for women, and the First World War was no exception. Nearly 25,000 women took an active part in helping the war effort through various roles. Though women did not serve in combat units, they did serve near the frontlines. The Red Cross, for one, provided opportunities to serve as nurses, food distribution, clerks, refugee work, counseling prisoners-of-war, typists, journalists, secretaries, and entertainers. Others worked in the Red Cross Motor Service and acted as drivers behind the lines. On the homefront, many worked as telephone operators known as the famous 'Hello Girls.' Others worked as linguists and translators, or were part of the Hospital and Recreation Corps, which provided recreational activities for wounded vets at hospitals in which they were called 'grey ladies' due to their distinctive grey uniforms. Still others paid visits to military bases and helped combat the horrific 1918 influenza that swept through Europe and the United States. Although a fraction of women pacifists in the National Women's Party opposed the war, the larger organization of the National American Woman Suffrage Movement Association, were patriotic and supported the war and were more representative of women's attitudes.

Eleanor Roosevelt at the United Nations
Eleanor Roosevelt

Between the Wars

The increased role of women in the workforce soon dwindled after the war as normalcy returned. A key victory, though, with the full support of President Woodrow Wilson, who appreciated their wartime efforts, was the landmark 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, which forbade gender discrimination in voting. Franklin Roosevelt also supported women rights as demonstrated in his appointment of Francis Perkins as the Secretary of Labor, which made her the first female White House cabinet member. Given the backdrop of the Great Depression, she played a high-profile role in his administration. Another prominent woman was the New Yorker, Margaret Sanger, who publicly advocated birth control for women. To publicize her views, she founded The Woman Rebel and The Birth Control Review publications. More significantly, in 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, which became better known as Planned Parenthood in 1942.

Margaret Sanger
Margaret Sanger

Women in the Second World War

Women played a similar role in the Second World War as in the First, but on a grander scale. In all, around 350,000 women served in the armed forces in non-combat roles, and their service proved invaluable. Women, however, became more famous for their work on the homefront. During the war, the percentage of women in the workforce numbered 6 million and increased from 27% to 37% of the domestic labor force. They worked in the manufacturing sectors, industrial plants, aircraft and even tank facilities building planes and war machines for the war effort. So iconic was their role, that the promotional symbol of 'Rosie the Riveter' was popularized to recruit female workers. Women also helped promote bonds drives for fundraising and 'victory gardens' in which the government encouraged private gardens to lessen the pressure of corporate farms in feeding the troops. To assist women with juggling work and child-rearing, the government funded the creation of over 3,000 daycare centers.

War Production Board Promotional Poster for Women
War Production Board Promotional Poster

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