Term Paper: Role of Women Since World War

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Role of Women Since World War 2 (WWII)

The role of women in society may have changed more during and after World War Two than any other period in human history. As a brief indication of the change, five percent of American women were employed in the regular workforce, whereas 60% of women of working age were employed by 1990 (Goldin 1991). This paper will analyze how women's roles changed during and after World War II (hereafter called the "War") and to the present day.

The change in women's roles should be analyzed on more fronts than their contribution to the workforce, but workforce contribution is a key contributor to the change in how women are perceived (some would say 'valued') in the workplace.

Rather than present a consistent evolution of women's roles during the period from 1941 to the present, this paper will seek to demonstrate several changes which do not represent a consistent pattern -- rather more the Reformation-Counter-reformation movements familiar to those who studied the rise of Protestantism in mid-millennium Europe.

This paper will concentrate on the changing role of women in the United States. This restriction is necessary, given the rich history of women in societies around the world since the War.

The United States entered the War in December, 1941. Within three and a half years, it had sent over five million troops to two major global fronts. While many men stayed behind in crucial positions, women were required to take over what had traditionally been men's jobs, from machinists to farmers.

The War was important to women: six million women entered the workforce who had not worked before (Harvey 2006). In addition, women entered the workforce that had lost their jobs during the Great Depression. Finally, women who were working in the civilian sphere converted to military or military-related positions. Of the three, the most important group (in terms of women's role in society) was the women who were new to work.

There was not a universal acceptance of this change in women's roles in society, even from the women involved. Although poor women had always had to work, the idea of middle-class women joining the workforce was a new concept. Here is the perspective of one such woman:

My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, 'You will never want to go back to being a housewife.' At that time I didn't think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did.... At Boeing I found a freedom and an independence that I had never known. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up. (Harvey 2006)"

Those women who went to work knew that they had to do it -- the more productive American society; the more quickly the U.S. And its allies could win the war.

After the war, many women were displaced by returning men, but the participation of women in the workforce -- particularly middle-class women -- never returned to pre-war levels. Perhaps one of the reasons for women's continued role in the workforce was that they had developed a liking for the work; another was the need to build assets for their families in the aftermath of the war.

Two other effects of the War which changed women's roles: the movement of millions of wives to military bases, which resulted in a mass migration, particularly from the East and Midwest to the West Coast. This resulted in a more wide-open attitude towards women in the workforce, as union and cultural restrictions were less evident on the West Coast than elsewhere.

The second major move was that of African-American women to the North, in order to fill industrial jobs. As their men returned from the War, many of those families stayed in the North, changing the demographics of major cities in a significant way after the War.

The period of the 1950's represented a retraction to some degree for American women. The idealized nuclear family, with two parents and a set of children, dominated American culture during the 1950's. What is particularly interesting about the role of women in American society at that point was the differentiation between younger women, who married and had children after the War, and women of their parent's generation who had entered the workforce during the War. The latter group tended to stay employed, and their numbers did not decline after the War. Thus women had two role models to emulate during the 1950's: the working, middle-aged, middle class woman, and the younger, middle-class, stay-at-home mother.

The subsequent rise of the women's liberation movement in the 1960's can be primarily attributed to those older women who had pursued more independent careers after the War. Betty Friedan's "Feminine Mystique," regarded as the siren call to feminism, was published in 1963 (Friedan 1963). Her background was Seven Sisters, middle class, and pre-Baby Boomer. Friedan's book was a rejection of the father-centered Freudian image of women, of "penis envy," and of the incipient belief that women could not compete in the modern workforce.

The onset of the 1960's represented other gains for women. JFK's election as President was attributed as much to the campaign skills of his wife, Jackie, than to the man. Their "Camelot presidency" marked a contrast with Mamie Eisenhower and Bess Truman, who were very much in the background. Jackie demonstrated that a woman could both have influence and be feminine.

Not all changes in women's roles were positive. The 1960's, with the advent of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," marked the end of the nuclear family for African-Americans. Whereas rates of marriage and divorce in the African-American community were similar to those of whites up to the 1960's, the rate of unwed births and single mothers increased dramatically in African-American families (Garfinkel 1988). The results were catastrophic for African-Americans generally. Single mothers were much more likely to find themselves on the welfare rolls, were more likely to raise violent sons who ended up dead or in prison, and were condemned to a life of poverty in both education and income.

The changes for white women in the United States were more positive in many respects in the 1960's. The introduction of birth control in 1960 marked the first time in history that women could control their fertility (Thomas 1960). Time Magazine called it "the Pill that Unleashed Sex." The subsequent eruption of the "free love movement" in Berkeley in 1966, and in San Francisco in 1967 marked the logical conclusion to freely-available and inexpensive birth control in the hands of women.

Although women's roles could be much freer than in the past, men may have had other ideas in the radical movements of the late 1960's. This was especially true in the African-American Black Power movement. Eldridge Cleaver was famously known to have said that the only position for women in the Black Power movement was "prone (Newton 2005)." Many white males had the same attitude.

Not all women benefited from birth control. Cultural reasons may have prevented widespread adoption amongst Hispanic and African-American women after 1960. Birth rates for both groups remained high, in and out of wedlock.

While women found that their newfound control over their fertility liberating, they were nevertheless confronted with laws which restricted abortion throughout the United States. The subsequent Roe vs. Wade case, decided by the Supreme Court in 1973, resulted in the lifting of (mostly state-by-state) restrictions on abortion.

Abortion benefited all women in that it provided the other piece to reproductive freedom. Less reported is that abortion became a "default birth control" for many women of color after 1973. Birth rates amongst African-American women declined, although births out of wedlock continued at over 60%. This reduction in the size of the African-American family allowed some single mothers to rejoin the workforce.

Subsequent changes in the role of women in society had to do with balancing the roles of mother and career woman. This was never an easy balance. Although more women were attending formerly male-oriented law, medical and business graduate schools, not all chose the career track after their education. Fortune Magazine surveyed the women graduates of Harvard Business School's class of 1976 after twenty years, and found that only 1/3 had stayed in the workforce. Many left to marry and have children, and stayed out of the workforce.

Despite the allure of stay-at-home careers, women broke the 'glass ceiling' in the 1980's. Such important "firsts" include the first woman to join the Supreme Court (Sandra Day O'Connor), the first woman Prime Minister of Great Britain (Margaret Thatcher) and the first woman Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi.

These women did not have an easy time during their career climbs; Sandra Day O'Connor says that when she applied for her first job at a Los Angeles law firm, she was told that the partners would never accept a woman lawyer; when asked if she could… [END OF PREVIEW]

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