Women’s role in World War II

During the World Wars the people of the countries involved were affected in many different ways. The wars were cause for people to step out of their traditional roles and participate in work that they would not normally do. The Second World War particularly affected women. The demand for labor during the Second World War caused a temporary shift in representations of women and work. However from the 1920s to the 1970s women’s work was seen as marginal. Their work was not seen as valuable as that of a man because it was believed that their work did not require as much strength or skill as men’s work. Women were associated with domestic work such as cooking, cleaning and child care. Wartime propaganda, however, emphasized that it was the women’s responsibility and duty to take over industry jobs, military offices, and workshops so that the men could go fight.

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1941 poster by Philip Zec. Wikimedia Commons.

During the first year of war there was no perceived need for women’s labor. However, by the end of 1940 there was a realization for the first time that the demand for products required the help of women significantly more than during the First World War. Due to the greater demand of laborers, Essential Works Orders were introduced. These were work orders that set rules and regulations for the newly hired employees. The work orders stated that no one could be fired unless they had engaged in serious misconduct, and also stated that no one could quit their job unless they had the agreement of a National Service Officer. This system was designed to reduce labor turnover and by the end of 1941 it had affected an estimated 4.5 million people.

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Eleanor Roosevelt talking with woman machinist during her goodwill tour of Great Britain. Wikimedia Commons.

Due to the lack of female volunteers for the Auxiliary Services the National Service Act introduced conscription for childless widows and unmarried women from the ages of 20 to 30. Older women were registered for civilian employment during 1942 and 1943. This order was brought forth in January of 1942 and it allowed women to obtain employment through an employment exchange. From this date forward all men between the ages of 16 and 60 were also required to undertake some form of National Service. The lack of female volunteers led Britain to become the first combatant nation to conscript women. It essentially involved the transfer of labor from Scotland, Wales, and northern countries to the midland regions of England.

WWII reduced the extent of gender segregation of employment in Britain. The gender pay inequality declined because women were being employed in industries that had previously been dominated by men. The same did not apply to areas that had already had a predominately female workforce. Women who were employed in factories that had previously employed women were paid on the “Women’s Wage Schedule” or the district rate for boys, whichever was the higher of the two. Despite the rise in the demand for women’s labor, the inequality in pay did not change much at all, besides a few exceptions. Women who were employed on work “hitherto performed by adult male labor” would work for a 32 weeks probationary period. During this time they were paid at an increasing rate and after the 32 weeks if the women could do the same work as men without being supervised then they would earn the same rate as men as well as earn bonuses. Although the programs that had been created to incorporate women into the work field were effective for the most part, there were some issues that arose. Disputes over the interpretation of key provisions of the dilution agreement that put women on a probation period for 32 weeks of work arose. It was not entirely clear what constituted “without supervision” and “previously employed.”

Despite everything that had been done to increase the labor supply, forces were roughly 8 million, as opposed to the estimated 9.5 million that had been forecast. Although the women were willing to step up and help in the workforce many of them were anxious for the men to return home so that they could return to their normal lives.

Written by Yesica Villalpando

Sources

Eldridge, Golda. “World War II London Blitz Diary.” Air Power History 61, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 57.

Gazeley, Ian. “Women’s pay in British industry during the Second World War.” Economic History Review 61, no. 3 (August 2008): 651-671.

Rose, Sonya O. “Sex, Citizenship, and the Nation in World War II Britain.” American Historical Review 103, no. 4 (October 1998): 1147-1176.

Summerfield, Penny. “‘They didn’t want women back in that job!’: the Second World War and the construction of gendered work histories.” Labour History Review (Maney Publishing) 63, no. 1 (Spring98 1998): 83-104.