History Flashback takes a look at historical “found footage” of all kinds—newsreels, instructional films, even cartoons—to give us a glimpse into how much things have changed, and how much has remained the same.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese bombers staged a surprise attack on the United States, destroying a large portion of the Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. The very next day, a previously reluctant U.S. Congress declared war, and by the end of January, the first American troops were landing on European shores.
America’s entry into World War II helped turn the tide for the Allies, but the quick mobilization also created a vacuum on the home front. At the same time that the country needed to ramp up industrial production to supply the American military machine, it was also sending hundreds of thousands of men who had previously filled this labor force overseas to fight. At home, the American bigwigs left in charge looked around and realized there was only one solution—they needed women to come to their rescue.
And women did. While men fought on the frontlines, it was the Rosie the Riveters back home who filled the labor gap, making the bombs, airplanes, and other industrial products fueling both the war effort and home life. But this influx of women in traditionally male-dominated workplaces created a new set of challenges…at least, for the men in charge. How were these managers supposed to supervise this puzzling new species on their factory floors? Luckily for them, the U.S. Office of Education Training Film came to the rescue with retrospectively hilarious—and cringeworthy—educational videos like this one from 1944 that offered advice on how to deal with the “problems” women workers presented.
Calling all women: The war effort expands the female workforce
When women were asked to sign on to factories, they responded in droves. Women were already a part of the work force, of course, but the war effort pulled in those from middle and upper class backgrounds who had previously stayed in the home, as well as those who had lost their jobs during the Great Depression. Over six million women joined the workforce by the end of the war, and by 1945, they made up almost 37 percent of the workforce, up from only 27 percent in 1940.
Their contributions were crucial to the war effort. In just the aircraft industry, women made up 65 percent of all employees. Dorothy McCann, who worked in an aircraft factory in Baltimore, told the Washington Post in 2014, “It was something I never dreamed of doing, but after I learned how, I loved it.”
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Despite these superwomen answering the call of Uncle Sam, they faced significant inequality. According to Susan M. Hartmann’s The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s, skilled female workers only made $31.21 a week on average compared with their male counterparts who made $54.65. Plus, they had to deal with patronizing managers like the fictional Joe Haley, who needed an educational video to figure out how to contend with the “eternal feminine” on the production line.
Rosie the Riveter inspires women everywhere
Once the war started, videos, propaganda posters, and ad campaigns called on women to clock in, using tactics like that of an American War Manpower Campaign that assured potential workers, “If you’ve used an electric mixer in your kitchen, you can learn to run a drill press.”
But perhaps the most iconic image from the time is that of Rosie the Riveter, the tough representative of female factory workers who flexes her muscles in a red bandanna and blue work shirt with a determined (not to mention mascara’d) gaze. Rosie was based on a real woman, Naomi Parker, who worked in a machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California.
Although the poster is ubiquitous now, it was only displayed for two weeks in February 1943 and wasn’t widely known in the U.S. during World War II. It only became a national icon in the 1980s when it was embraced as a symbol by the women’s movement.
End of the War: Women who stepped up are rewarded with betrayal
Women may have saved the day during WWII, but when the war ended, things quickly changed. Soldiers were returning home and they needed jobs to help them get back on their feet and reacclimatize to civilian life. The managers who had previously begged women to help out were now forcing them back into their kitchens to free up jobs for men.
By 1948, the percentage of women in the U.S. workforce dipped to 32.7 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, this despite a poll taken in the last few years of the war that suggested between 61 to 85 percent of women wanted to remain in their jobs when the war was over. The men may have prevailed at the time, but there was no turning back to a world before the war. In the ensuing decades, women took up ideological arms to battle for their rights, including equality of pay, opportunity, and treatment in the workplace.
Anne Montagne, founder of Thanks! Plain and Simple, an organization associated with the American Rosie Movement, laid out the dilemma to the Washington Post: “You know, they said about the men, ‘How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?’ What I say about the women is, ‘How ya gonna keep ’em knitting with yarn after they’ve seen Lockheed?’”