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UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT POLICY TOWARD
CIVILIAN WOMEN DURING WORLD WAR II
ELEANOR F. STRAUB
"When the classic work on the history of women comes to be written," Max Lerner mused in 1943, "the biggest force for change in their lives will turn out to have been war." i With its female welders, bellhops, and taxi drivers, the American home front during World War II seemed to offer abundant proof for such a statement. The average American woman became a cultural heroine, a symbol of American determination to win a war that few understood. Sensing that the public identified with Rosie the Riveter and her sisters in the war, the information and image-making centers of the nation-Washington, Hollywood, and Madison Avenue-deluged the home front with a steady stream of material glamorizing, examining, glorifying, and exhorting the American woman. A whole genre of literature on women's participation was spawned, most of it echoing the
theme that "house-keeping as usual ended in America on the day of Pearl Harbor.” 2 The message that women were vital to victory was drilled into the public mind by advertisers, journalists, and public officials. To describe the contribution of the nation's women, a new word, womanpower, crept into the popular vocabulary.
A loosely defined term, womanpower described efforts as diverse as halting careless talk and operating a fifteen-ton crane. At one time or another during the war, the success of virtually every home front campaign was deemed to depend on the nation's women. Keeping the home fires burning World War II style demanded far more than writing letters and knitting sweaters; it required, as one advertiser phrased it, for a woman to be “Betsy Ross, Barbara Fritchie and Molly Pitcher, reborn. A real fighting American." Nevertheless, soliciting women's aid in maintaining the nation's health through proper nutrition, in collecting tin cans, waste fats, and silk hosiery, in selling bonds, in fighting inflation, and in doing volunteer work of all sorts was in reality an expansion of war tasks that had been delegated to women in earlier conflicts.3
2 Susan B. Anthony, Out of the Kitchen-Into the War (New York, 1943), 2:2. See also: Gulielma F. Alsop and Mary F. McBride, Arms and the Girl (New York, 1943); Keith Ayling, Calling All Women (New York, 1942); Laura Nelson Baker, Wanted: Women in War Industry (New York, 1943); Margaret Culkin Banning, Women for Defense (New York, 1942); Augusta H. Clawson, Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder (New York, 1944); and Neil Giles, Punch In, Susie! (New York, 1943).
1 Max Lerner, Public Journal (New York, 1945),
A new element in the World War II appeal was the extent to which womanpower was described in terms of full-time paid work. Potential Rosie the Riveters were courted, cajoled, and flattered in an attempt to induce women to accept war jobs. The agency coordinating the government's publicity program, the Office of War Information, encouraged the media to create a “sense of urgency” in women in order to convince them that “women must work as men must fight.” 4
Calls to action formed an important ele
ment in the wartime public relations program directed at women, but praise was an equally prominent feature. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman paid tribute to the “grand job” and “untiring efforts” of American women. Manpower Commissioner Paul V. McNutt lauded women workers as the “real heroines of this war." 5 Songwriters concurred in these sentiments and penned paeans of praise to "Rosie the Riveter," "Woman Behind the Man Behind the Gun,” “The Lady at Lockheed,” and “The Janes Who Make
3 Advertisement in Life, Jan. 11, 1942, p. 93. The approach to nutrition and health is well illustrated in Women's Radio Program Guide, July 1943, p. 17, Records of the Radio Bureau, 1941-45, Domestic Operations Branch, Records of the Office of War Information, Record Group 208, Washington National Records Center, Suitland, Md. (hereafter cited as RG _, WNRC). For an example of the female emphasis in the salvage program, see War Production Board, Salvage Division, A Job Only a Woman Can Do, Sept. 1943, Records of the Program Manager for Homefront Campaigns, Office of the Deputy Directors, Domestic Operations Branch, ibid. For women's role in halting inflation and in selling bonds, see W. B. Harvey to S. 0. Lesser, Jan. 18, 1945, Research Division Records, Office of War Information, Records of the Office of Government Reports, RG 44, WNRC; Dorothy Thompson, "Women and Inflation," Ladies Home Journal, Dec. 1941, p. 6; Sylvia Carewe, “Where's the Woman's Angle in this War," Advertising and Selling 35 (1942): 23. On volunteer work, see F. H. LaGuardia, “'An Hour a Day for the U.S.A.,'" Ladies Home Journal, Dec. 1941, p. 106; and "Aides Relieve Nurse Shortage,” Life, Jan. 5, 1942, p. 32.
4 Office of War Information, Women in the War (Washington, D.C., 1944), p. 2.
5 For Roosevelt's statement, see “President Pays Tribute to Women Workers," Labor Information Bulletin 10 (1943): 1. Truman was quoted by Mrs. Charles W. Tillett in a radio script for the Democratic Women's Day Program, Oct. 25, 1945, in Women's Division, Democratic National Committee, Florence Jaffray Harriman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Paul V. McNutt, Radio Transcription, p. 2, Speeches, Radio Addresses, Interviews, and Statements, Office of the Chairman, Records of the War Manpower Commission, Record Group 211, National Archives Building (hereafter cited as RG_, NA).