The Bridgeville Area Historical Society celebrated Women’s History Month by welcoming back one of their favorite speakers, Dr. Todd DePastino, and an excellent presentation entitled “Women in World War II”.
Todd began his talk with an examination of society’s attitude toward women in general and women in the workplace specifically in the years preceding World War II. He chose to introduce this subject by discussing William Marston, the subject of the recent film “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women”.
Marston was an eccentric person, a prominent psychologist and feminist. He was convinced that the masculine personality was responsible for most of the world’s problems and that the feminine personality had the potential to eliminate them. His biggest claim to fame was inventing Wonder Woman, a super heroine who fought evil with love rather than fists or firepower, in response to the aggressive masculine superheroes that suddenly dominated the comic strips in the late 1930s.
By coincidence Wonder Woman arrived on the newsstands the same week as Pearl Harbor catapulted the United States into World War II, suddenly creating a major problem for the labor force. In 1941 our population was about 134 million persons. The labor pool was about fifty-two million including ten million agricultural workers, eight million women, and four million unemployed workers.
The government planned to increase the number of men in the military services from about two million to ten or twelve million. They also knew that munitions production would require a massive increase in workers. The obvious solution was to dramatically increase the number of women employed, particularly in industries that were traditionally limited to men.
This met resistance on two fronts. Most of the women already in the workforce were single; married women were expected to be homemakers and leave the “bread winning” to their husbands. As an example, Todd mentioned the fact that in many areas, in the 1930s, married women were not permitted to work as teachers. My brother commented that every teacher in Washington Elementary School when he was a student was indeed a single female.
In addition, there was no precedent for women performing work in the heavy manufacturing facilities that were in the process of being converted to the production of naval vessels, bombers, and tanks. The government immediately began a publicity campaign encouraging house wives to support the war effort by joining the labor pool.
Prior to the War the number of workers employed producing “durable goods” was about four million; by 1943 this number peaked at eleven million. The number of women in the labor pool increased from eight million to sixteen million. It is obvious that our success in out-producing the rest of the world in munitions was largely because of the contribution of these women.
Rosie the Riveter has become the symbol of this effort. In 1942 two obscure songwriters, Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, wrote a song commemorating the work of a woman working on an assembly line. It was recorded by Sammy Kaye; its most memorable phrase is “Rosie Brrrrrrrr the Riveter”.
Norman Rockwell ensured mortality for Rosie by depicting her on a Saturday Evening Post cover on May 29, 1943. Todd juxtaposed a picture of that cover with one of Michelangelo’s painting of Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel, the inspiration for the pose Rockwell chose. On her lunch break, Rosie is eating a sandwich, has her rivet gun on her lap, and is using a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” as a footstool.
The other icon from that era is Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It” poster which became popular with the feminist movement in the 1980s. It was originally published by Westinghouse for use in one of their plants, then shelved. Years later copies of it were found, and it “went viral”. It depicts a woman with a bandana on her head, flexing her muscles and saying “We Can Do It”. Today it is marketed as “Rosie the Riveter”.
Women also made a significant contribution serving in the military. There was major opposition to this initially, but senior officers, particularly General George Marshall, recognized the fact that women could make valuable contributions in non-combat roles. Oveta Culp Hobby was selected to lead the WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) in 1942. They quickly enlisted 150,000 volunteers.
A year later the “auxiliary” classification was dropped, so that members of the WAC (Women’s Army Corps) could serve overseas. They soon demonstrated their value by taking over many challenging assignments, freeing up men for combat.
Shortly after the organization of the WAAC, a parallel organization was established to serve with the U. S. Navy, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). In contrast with the WAC, the WAVES employed a fashion expert to design their uniforms, which were far more attractive.
The SPARS were established to support the Coast Guard; the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, for the Marines. The Marine Commandant rejected the idea of any nickname (acronym) for their women. He recognized their value and considered them Marines with the same prestige as the men.
A small, but valuable, organization was the WASPS (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots). Composed of women who already had their pilot’s licenses, they provided a valuable service ferrying military aircraft and delivering cargo. Actually civil service employees, they retroactively received military status in 1977.
In addition to the eight million women joining the work force in World War II, about 350,000 women served in the military. Their contribution to winning the war, both at home and overseas, is unprecedented in our history.
The Society’s next program meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, April 27, 2021, at 7:30, in the Chartiers Room of the Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department. Chris George’s subject will be “Day by Day with the 123rd PA Volunteers”.