Some historians argue that, in many ways, World War II created the modern women’s rights movement. Before the war, it was unusual for women to work outside the home, especially in the middle and upper social classes. Before the war, 12 million women worked. That changed dramatically when women were needed for the war effort.
During the war, the number of working women went from 12 million to 18.6 million. Roughly half of all women in America were employed outside the home, and that number did not count the women who were working longer hours on farms. With millions of men and women in the military, labor was short both on the farm and in the cities. Many rural women took jobs in the war factories. Those who stayed drove tractors and trucks and their list of daily chores grew.
Winifred “Freddie” Oglesby was one of those working women. “Everybody was working in munitions factories,” she says, “making good money. Women took a lot of men’s jobs in town. Freddie’s husband was in the Marines and she taught school, worked for REA, tended bar and eventually opened her own fabric shop. She was one of the first successful businesswomen in York or central Nebraska.
By 1942, two million women were working the most difficult and dangerous industrial jobs in U.S. defense plants. They were recruited by newspaper and magazine articles, songs and a popular poster image of “Rosie the Riveter.” (In fact, there was
an actual Rosie; see her story here.)
Holly Miller’s future wife Lenore moved to California to work in a defense plant. “They were pleading for help out there and paying pretty good wages,” Holly says. After the war, Holly and Lenore started their own seed corn business. He says he couldn’t have done it without here. “She was a vital part of the operation.”
Many of the women moved from the farm to the cities, creating an even greater labor shortage in agriculture.
Yet, they did not always find equal treatment on the job.
At the Martin Bomber Plant south of Omaha, over 5,300 of the 13,000 total workers were women – 40 percent of the workforce. Since almost none of the new employees were experienced airplane mechanics, the women’s lack of training was not a problem. The Martin Company trained everyone, and maintained that on company payrolls “all Martineers are equal.”
However, in practice, most women were placed in the lowest paying job classifications as drill operators, rivet handlers, bench electricians, timekeepers, clerks, cafeteria workers and “general helpers.”
It didn’t seem to matter that much to the women. Mildred Hopkins was proud of her work at the Cornhusker Ordnance Plant. “I was part of the war effort!” she says. “There were lots of women working the line. In fact, it was mostly women.”
For many women at the Martin plant, this was their first professional job outside the home, and they liked the sense of professional accomplishment as well as the increased paycheck.
When the war started, national polls showed that 95 percent of working women expected to stop working after the war. That percentage dropped sharply as the war went on.
After the war, the same propaganda agencies that had implored women to work, now extolled the virtues of giving up their jobs so returning men had work. They were told to take up their lives as housewives and mothers. Some were happy to give up the factory jobs. Others weren’t.
Slowly, more and more women returned to the labor force either because of economic convenience – the desire to buy more consumer products – or economic necessity. Other women returned to work simply because they wanted the satisfaction.
Since then, many historians have pointed to the experience of World War II as the birthplace of the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s. An outgrowth of that movement was the push to recognize the economic contributions that women make on the farms.
As Holly Miller says of his wife’s contributions to his agribusiness, “She was a vital part of the operation.”