Debunking Women’s Plight During World War 2

Chris La Cour is a second year History student whose interests include the differentiation between resistance, collaboration and complicity during World War Two and the study of the representation of war, particularly in the 20th century.

William Chafe, in 1972, claimed that the Second World War was the ‘watershed event’, which ‘transformed the economic outlook of women’.[1] This is an idea which has arguably permeated social memory, in contrast to the revisionist literature which surfaced in the 1980s. This piece will, on a miniature scale, seek to uncover the ramifications of the Second World War on women’s role in society. World War Two has retained a unique relevance given how it altered societies and the world order. Examining the effects on an integral component of global societies, women, who in many cases are still locked in a struggle to overcome many of the same problems prevalent before is thus beyond pertinent. Unfortunately, my referral to women will not make any distinction between white and African American women; it is not possible within the scope to refer specifically to African American women. Their experiences varied considerably as the subjects of racial as well as gender discrimination and separating those two distinct components would be an impossible task within this piece. Ultimately, the data does not suggest that the Second World War and its immediate aftermath constituted an improvement towards the abolishment of traditional gender roles from above. Hence, the role of the Second World War on society’s view of women and their role within it has undoubtedly been overestimated in the past, however, a crucial point is that women’s resistance to this inequality grew.

                  Deep within social memory dwells the idea concerning women and how they supposedly streamed into the workforce during the Second World War and stayed there. For instance, 25 percent of married women were employed at the end of the war as opposed to 15 percent during the 1930s.[2] However, is it valid to compare the postwar era, an era of prosperity, with the struggles of the Great Depression? A time which severely restricted access to the workforce for men and women alike. Rosie the Riveter was a famous campaign slogan urging women to work during the war, and yet from 1944 onwards, many women faced pressure to leave these jobs, discovering they had been mere “substitutes.”[3] Hence, around four million women lost their jobs between 1944 and 1946 in America alone, a fact seldom cited.[4] Women’s participation in the war effort was ‘framed in terms of support of fighting men,’ for the ‘good of the country’ as patriotism implied impermanence.[5] [6] [7] Moreover, the jobs which the women occupied rarely offered prospects for advancement and despite the popular notion which suggests otherwise, many of these jobs were not held exclusively by men prior to the war.[8] The war constituted an opportunity to challenge gender roles and norms, the enactment of long-term domestic and public legislation to promote equality. Yet, it failed to do so, given that opportunities for many women dried up in postwar America.[9] The American government, believed the postwar role for a woman constituted being a devoted housewife and a child-bearer.[10] The prevailing reason for hiring women was not a paradigm shift in the United States and Britain— where roughly the same situation was prevalent— it was the circumstances created by the war. Therefore, many opportunities for women vanished alongside this wartime necessity.

                  This necessity is prevalent everywhere during the war, but as in America, there is little evidence to suggest opinions were fundamentally or radically altered. In Germany, despite Hitler’s vision of a mother’s purpose being raising the next generation of Aryans, Albert Speer convinced him to utilise women in a variety of roles when the Germans fortunes in the war started their never ending reversal. By 1945 women held 85% of the jobs previously held by men in the Reich.[11] The Germans, as well as the British, also created Anti-Aircraft batteries that were mixed gender, with the women proving exceptionally gifted at using the predictor and the spotlights.[12] However, the batteries were not truly mixed gender, as the female operatives were prohibited from firing the weapons as both Hitler and Churchill did not believe public opinion would tolerate such behaviour — despite the total war going on around them.[13] It was a simple equation: ‘public doubts and ingrained genders against pressing needs’ — the result was perceived as a redeemable compromise.[14] On the other hand, in the Soviet Union, 800,000 women enlisted in the Red Army, as there were no restrictions. Around 400,000 served in front-line units, 300,00 in AA batteries, as well as three squadrons: one fighter, one bomber and one of night bombers (the 588th) nicknamed the Night Witches by the Germans for their accuracy.[15] The Soviet Union constituted the nation which most effectively mobilised its population, hence, it is no surprise that the women had the most active role. However, crucially, this did not mean that the perception of women changed. The Red Army raped its way through Germany culminating in the infamous Rape of Berlin. Systematic and yet opportunistic revenge for the horrors perpetrated by the Germans on the Russian motherland and its population.

                  On the other side of the planet, an estimated 20,000 cases of within the first three months of the occupation of Nanking, infamously labelled the Rape of Nanking.[16] Manifestations of the same behaviour also befell other women under occupation in places such as Manila, as well as those chosen for the infamous Comfort Women “scheme.” Consequently, Askin has aptly named a subsection in her book on War Crimes Against Women ‘Rape of Asia, pertaining to the horrors of World War Two.’[17] She reveals despite widespread knowledge of the events, no separate tribunals were set up by the international victors, or the UN for war crimes against women.[18] Rape and other forms of sexual assault were only discussed in relation to other crimes in the Tokyo trials but remained entirely without mention in the Nuremberg equivalent. Acts which completely disregarded the regular occurrence of rape, sexual humiliation and assault by the Japanese, and the Germans in the areas under their occupation and in the concentration camps. According to her, this remains nothing less than a ‘shameful blight on the history of international and humanitarian laws’.[19] Women were therefore still targeted during occupations, partly systematically and partly opportunistically; but what set the Second World War apart, was the number of cases. World War Two proved that soldiers given the chance would rape and perform sexual assaults on women if they had the chance, a phenomenon probably as old as war itself, and yet arguably, no closer to being eradicated.

                  What does set World War Two apart for women, particularly white women, is that while society’s perception of them and the injustices did not change; their resistance towards the inherent inequalities changed.[20] That is the main purpose of the revisionist historiography, to emphasise that these women were not granted any favours by society. For instance, in a survey of around 4000 women, the women who were in the workforce in 1940, 1944 and 1950 on average had 0.48 children under 18;  women who were in the workforce by 1950 but not in 1940 or 1944 had 1.78.[21] This highlights how the women who had been employed during the war and largely rejected the traditional gender roles of housewifery and child-bearing after the war, wanting to forge their own successful careers without what must almost certainly have been seen as a hindrance. On the contrary most young men and women turned to childbearing in ‘unexpected numbers’ in the immediate aftermath of the war.[22] The statistic also shows that young women after the war were increasingly allowed and able to work alongside caring for children, a rejection of another component of the traditional gender norms, which demanded child caring and housework was essentially a full-time job.  Moreover, World War Two arguably shaped the Second-Wave Feminism movement.[23] Issues highlighted during the movement were apparent during the war; female workers, for example, earned on average around 60% of their male counterparts performing identical jobs.[24] In addition, fundamental to society at the time was the notion that the home was the ‘basic American institution’. A notion reinforced by the war, and thus an essential cause of the global mass movement.[25]

                  Wars allow governments to enact measures and policies impossible during peacetime, to consolidate power and ensure the survival of the strained economies. Evident during the Second World War when particularly the American government, tried to consolidate its power over society and the social standing of women, limiting prospects for social and societal elevation. Hence, the pressure was introduced on women to give up their new jobs and return to the home, which many felt compelled to do. The reality or at least the newfound consensus is that many women were in the workforce in the 1950s due to the postwar boom, and not because of the war itself. Prosperity and the creation of new jobs in America allowed women to be accepted into the workforce, despite society’s view of them or their fundamental “role” having undergone very limited change, if any. Traditional gender norms remained in place alongside shunning and the silencing of uncomfortable topics —the discrimination towards LGBT, African Americans and the war crimes against women. Hence, the revisionist historiography, crucially led by women, emphasises that the new consensus is that there no ‘permanent or radical’ changes to gender perception in America, undoubtedly applicable elsewhere as well.[26] One aspect which the war did radically change, however, was that women’s resistance towards the inequality and injustice in society increased. Most, if not all the change that occurred, transpired in the minds of the women; they devised their own paradigm shift, and then set about spreading that to society as a whole with the Second Wave of Feminism.


  • D’Ann Campbell, Women in combat: The World War II experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The Journal of Military History, (Apr 1, 1993)
  • Goldin The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Work NBER Working Paper No. 3203 (Also Reprint No. r1619),1989
  • Rosie the Riveter Gets Married, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II, Erenberg & S. Hirsch (eds), (Chicago, 1996)
  • Gordy, J. Hogan & A. Pritchard, Assessing “Herstory” of WWII: Content Analysis of High School History Textbooks, Equity and Excellence in Education, vol. 37, 2004
  • Askin, War Crimes Against Women: Prosecution in International War Crimes Tribunals, The Hague, 1997

[1] C. Goldin The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Work NBER Working Paper No. 3203 (Also Reprint No. r1619),1989, 4

[2] Rosie the Riveter Gets Married, The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II, L. Erenberg & S. Hirsch (eds), (Chicago, 1996), 130

[3] L. Gordy, J. Hogan & A. Pritchard, Assessing “Herstory” of WWII: Content Analysis of High School History Textbooks, Equity and Excellence in Education, vol. 37, 2004, 86

[4] ibid

[5] ibid, 84

[6]ibid, 82

[7] Hirsch & Erenberg, War in American Culture, 136

[8] ibid, 131

[9] ibid, 129

[10] Gordy, Hogan & Pritchard, Assessing “Herstory”, 82

[11] D’Ann Campbell, Women in combat: The World War II experience in the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The Journal of Military History, (Apr 1, 1993), 315

[12] An instrument which predicted where the plane would be when the shell fired by the Anti Aircraft gun reached a certain point based on the plane’s altitude and approximate speed.

[13] Campbell, Women in Combat, 308-316

[14] ibid, 310

[15] ibid, 318-320

[16] K.Askin, War Crimes Against Women: Prosecution in International War Crimes Tribunals, The Hague, 1997, 63

[17]ibid, 1

[18] ibid, 85

[19] ibid, 85

[20] Gordy, Hogan & Pritchard, Assessing “Herstory”, 89

[21] Golden, Role of WW2 in Women’s Work, 15

[22] Hirsch & Erenberg, War in American Culture, 129

[23] Gordy, Hogan & Pritchard, Assessing “Herstory”, 82

[24] ibid, 87

[25] Hirsch & Erenberg, War in American Culture, 140

[26] Campbell, Women in Combat, 302

Leave a Reply