Burning Down the House: Putting American Women in their Place Following WWII

World War II changed a multitude of things, but not American gender norms and stereotypes. The war reinforced the differences between men and women and deepened the power struggle. Allan M. Winkler drew a direct correlation between women’s involvement in the war effort and the development of the women’s rights movement, but this only tells part of the story.[1] It was not participation, but the gender-based barriers and limits to women’s participation in the war effort that reinvigorated the women’s civil rights movement. “Utilizing American woman power was a matter of military expediency,” wrote Michaela M. Hampf in “‘Dykes’ or ‘Whores’: Sexuality and the Women’s Army Corps in the United States during World War II.”[2] Expediency does not connote acceptance or appreciation, a distinction that followed women throughout the war. “Opponents to even a temporary participation of women felt that not only the efficiency of the military was threatened, but also the traditional system of male dominance and the roles of female homemaker and male breadwinner” continued Hampf.[3] In other words, women who did not stick to hearth and home were seen as more likely to burn down the house than to keep the home fires burning. The response to the possible subversion of traditional gender roles was an increased effort to keep women in their place.

One effective way to reinforce the traditional structure was to play up the differences between men and women by highlighting the ways in which women could never measure up to the ideal represented by American manhood. Low wages and low expectations concerning the duration of female employment were blatant reminders of women’s worth in the workplace relative to their male counterparts; others were less transparent. Articles on industry beauty contests, fashion shows, and “war fashion tips for feminine safety” shared pages with war reports in the monthly newsletters of a New England shipyard, for example.[4] These articles framed women workers as both “helpless” and “glamorous,” two decidedly nondesirable traits in workers meant to keep the economy and the war effort on track.[5]

Media depictions took contradictory representations of women even further. Women were depicted in images like “Rosie the Riveter,” but were also prominent in posters warning soldiers of venereal disease, “penis propaganda” that implied any woman could present a threat to manhood.[6] Male promiscuity is excused, accepted, and even expected, but female promiscuity threatened the health of American society and of its fighting men. The “virgin/whore binary” (coined by Lisa Wade in her essay for Sociological Images) was not limited to factory work or propaganda.[7] Women who served in military capabilities had to be careful not to be too ambitious lest they be branded as lesbians, prostitutes, or a combination of both. Linda Grant DePauw noted more work on military prostitution has been published than on women on who served as combat soldiers during the war.[8] The relative lack of research on women’s combat service compared to their illicit sexual service preserves the hypersexualized “otherness” of women in war, reminding us historians are not immune from the social norms and cultural mores of the environment in which they research and write.

Participation in the WWII workforce did not magically give women agency, nor did it open society’s eyes to their worth and abilities. If it had, there would have been no need for the women’s civil rights movement. Society does not change on its own, and the process is brutal. Some women simply could not reconcile the “new sense of self” and “self-reliance” fostered by working outside of the home with the societal expectation that they would “cheerfully leap back to home” when the men returned from war.[9] As Dellie Hahne told Studs Terkel in an interview for his “The Good War:” An Oral History of World War II, “a lot of women said, Screw that noise. ‘Cause they had a taste of making her own money, a taste of spending their own money, making their own decisions.”[10] As the hands that rocked the cradle learned their hands could handle many other tasks, they were not content to go back to how things were. The war had changed them, but it was up to them to change their world.

[1] Allan M. Winkler, “The World War II Homefront,” History Now: The Journal of the Gilder Lehman Institute, The Gilder Lehman Institute of American History, accessed December 12, 2016, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/world-war-ii/essays/world-war-ii-home-front.

[2] Michaela M. Hampf, “‘Dykes’ or ‘Whores’: Sexuality and the Women’s Army Corps in the United States during World War II.” Women’s Studies International Forum 27 (2004): 13-30, accessed December 14, 2016, EBSCOHost., 13.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Jane Marcellus, “Bo’s’n’s Whistle: Representing ‘Rosie the Riveter’ on the Job,” American Journalism 22, no. 2 (2005): 83-108, accessed November 28, 2016, EBSCOHost., 94.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/25/health/wwii-vd-posters-penis-propaganda.

[7] Lisa Ward, “The Virgin/Whore Binary in World War II Propaganda,” Sociological Images, June 15, 2011, accessed December 15, 2016, https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/06/15/the-virginwhore-binary-in-world-war-ii-vd-propaganda/.

[8] Linda Grant DePauw, Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 262.

[9] Winkler 352; Terkel, 120.

[10] Studs Terkel, “The Good War:” An Oral History of World War II. (New York: The New Press, 2011). Kindle edition.

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