During the 1930s and 1940s, two different emergencies drastically altered women’s roles in the United States. The first emergency, The Great Depression, urged women out of the workforce and into the home (despite the number of employed women rising). The second emergency, World War II, spent four years pushing women into the workforce to fill the void left by male soldiers.
The Great Depression was an economic emergency that effectively ended the flapper culture of the 1920s (I missed a decade due to Sandy, sorry!). Whereas in the ’20s, both men and women experienced a loosening of sexual mores and personal liberation, the stock market crash of 1929 sent the nation into a tight fiscal crisis. People of both genders lost jobs. And the message to women, in general, directed them to stay at home so that men could have a better chance at getting a job. Men, as the breadwinners, needed their jobs to support their families, but women who worked for “pin money” ought to leave the salaries for men (of course, the “pin money” worker was a largely inaccurate stereotype). The working woman was not respected by society at large because she was taking the labor that belonged to men.
Of course, women who worked during the Great Depression were not likely to be after economic independence and purchasing power. They, like men who worked, were supporting their families, and women entered the work force at twice the rate of men. Women did a wide variety of work throughout the Depression, including hosting boarders who could no longer afford to live on their own. Women’s wages increased to 63% of men’s wages, even though the number of women in the workforce grew (usually the two were inversely related). Due to the segregation of labor that had already existed, many women were able to stay in the workforce because men did not want to do “women’s work.” So even though public opinion was against women workers, the Great Depression actually spurred more women into the workforce.
The only way to really break the Great Depression was to get involved in a World War. And women, Uncle Sam needed you to fill the positions left vacant by young soldiers. Check out this propaganda video scripted by Eleanor Roosevelt and narrated by Katharine Hepburn:
The natural skills of the homemaker, like sewing, can translate easily to industrial work, and since the lives of men depend on it, women are necessary for the war effort. I particularly enjoyed the part about parachute production about five minutes into the video above; of course women are better at making a silk parachute! They have those nimble lady-fingers, after all!
Sarcasm aside, the campaign to get women working during WWII used fierce amounts of propaganda. If you weren’t working, as a woman, then you were not doing your patriotic duty. The labor of women became essential in making sure that the men overseas were well-equipped and protected. This new breed of working women was championed by Rosie the Riveter.
For a few short years, being a working woman was at the top of public opinion. However, as soon as the war ended, women were expected to pack up and go home. Those jobs that women had adopted naturally belonged to men. Propaganda ads began telling women to quit their jobs and return home, when just a few years before, they had been urging women into the workforce. Women were fired by droves in order to make way for male workers. Rosie the Riveter and her sisters at work were pushed into memory.
Both of these two emergencies show one consistent theme. When men leave the workplace, either through economic downturn or wartime soldiering, women quickly fill the gap. But when men return to the work force, women are once again pushed out.