America’s Secret Weapon: Women and Children
Before World War II, a woman’s role was considered to be that of wife and mother. Some states barred married women from holding jobs, even teaching jobs. The need to mobilize the entire population behind the war effort was so compelling that political and social leaders agreed that both women and men would have to change their perceptions of gender roles—at least as long as there was a national emergency. Sacrifice was expected, and women and children were told they must contribute in a variety of ways. There was a sense of excitement and a feeling that everyone was joining together against the common enemy.*
While married women occupied themselves mostly with housework, childrearing, and voluntary activities, they certainly were not idle. Women’s organizations mobilized millions of women to implement a wide range of local projects to help with the war effort. Volunteers gave their time and money with little or no public recognition. Serene Stokes, now in her eighties, remembers that her mother and friends started their own USO branch in Los Angeles to serve the soldiers as they deployed overseas. At age twelve, Serene volunteered at the USO, serving coffee and donuts, writing letters for and to servicemen and helping her mother.
In order to heat his house, Arnold Olson remembered that he would pick up coal off the tracks that had fallen from trains. He also had his own garden. His son, Allen Dale, remembers that they ended up eating “Blackie,” the family’s pet chicken. Everyone was expected to ration goods – from cigarettes and food to gasoline and dry goods — and sacrifice for the troops. This was true throughout the USA and the United Kingdom.
From a display at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Honolulu, HI…
…“Everyone pitched in to help the war effort. Lei makers made camouflage nets. Children scavenged for spare machinery parts. Seemingly everyone lined up to donate blood. Wahiawa resident Richard H. Y. Chun and his classmates picked fruit after their elementary school was converted into a hospital. ‘Everybody goes to the pineapple field,’ he recalled, ‘and you get graded, too, because there’s teachers in the fields.’”
…Nancy Hedermenn, Oahu resident and WARD. From a display at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Honolulu, HI…
…“Because so many men were called to military service, women joined the workforce for the first time. In Hawaii, an elite group of female civilians were recruited to join the “Women’s Air Raid Defense” (WARD) replacing men of the Army Signal Corps, freeing them for combat duty elsewhere. ‘For myself and other Island Girls, it was the defense of
our homes…then service to our country.’”
Nineteen million American women filled out the home front work force, not only as “Rosie the Riveters” in war factory jobs, but in transportation, agricultural, and office work. Women joined the federal government in large numbers. Nearly a million “government girls” were recruited for war work. Women volunteers supported the war effort by planting victory gardens, canning produce, selling war bonds, donating blood, salvaging needed commodities and sending care packages and letters to troops.**
New bride Violet Carattini assembled torpedoes while her husband was away in the Army. Army nurse Jean Wise remembers her time in Great Britain where she treated both American soldiers and German prisoners. “We lived in wooden huts. We had about eight girls to a hut. There was no running water and the restroom was about a block away. I was always tired…long working days. Because of the blackout, it was always dark; you couldn’t even use a flashlight. I once ran [physically] into a cow. When you can’t see a cow, you know you’re in bad shape. You sort of laugh it off…”
The Girls of Today, a small British book of sketches and verses written during the war years acknowledges and applauds the efforts of the women on the home front:
Miss Purl and Plain don’t look the same
But they should both be crowned with fame
Long hours they knit for the boys out there
Lovely warm woolies for them to wear
Munition girls toil through the night
To help our soldiers win the fight
They look so smart in their dungarees
Although they’re splashed with oil and grease
Hush Hush! said the typist “kindly don’t ask
I work on a secret Government task”
Unseen and unheard these Office girls show
By “keeping it dark” we will beat the foe.
For many women, World War II brought not only sacrifices, but also new jobs, new skills, and new opportunities. Because of the efforts of determined women and their children, governments were able to channel resources into the war effort and focus on the fight at hand. Although many women in the workforce were replaced by men returning from active duty, times had changed and working women were no longer the exception.
- *From the National Women’s History Museum website at: http://www.nwhm.org
- ** From Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org