Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

A woman’s place is in the home.

That time-honored maxim certainly held true until the out­break of World War II. This selection of photographs and posters – some startling, some engaging – tells the story of a world turned topsy-turvy. Drawn from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s Bureau of Archives and History, the Charles L. Blockson Afro­-American Collection of Temple University, and the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, these rare images offer a remarkable record of a less heralded aspect of the war effort: the women who worked on the home front in various industries in Pennsylvania during World War II. Although often poignant, and sometimes even amusing, these photographs document a pivotal period in twentieth century history which would profoundly change the modern workplace and precipi­tate the ongoing struggle for women’s role in the labor force.

On the eve of the second World War, women in the work force – when allowed – were generally considered subordinate to men. Most women who worked were employed in clerical, service, or domestic positions. During the Great Depression, Labor, the government, even the media, discouraged women from seeking gainful employment. Several legislative bodies went so far as to enact laws restricting the employment of mar­ried women. The percentage of working women in 1940 remained virtually unchanged from what it had been in 1910.

But World War II changed all that – if only temporarily.

As the need for war materiel intensified, it became evident to leaders of industry and government alike that the regular work force – composed primarily of able-bodied white males­ – could not adequately meet the new demands. Government offi­cials declared that the only way to remedy this shortfall was to “employ women on a scale hitherto unknown.” The War Manpower Commission directed defense agencies to “fully uti­lize, immediately and effectively, the largest and potentially the finest single source of labor available today – the vast reserve of woman-power.” Within months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor – the day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared “would live in infamy” – war industries began recruiting women: first single women, followed by married women with older children and, finally, African American women, to fill the increasing demands of the war effort. Many women already employed found this an ideal opportunity to move up to better paying jobs.

Six million American women – of whom more than a half-million were Pennsyl­vanians – took jobs during World War II. Women who had been previously discour­aged from competing with men in the workplace, and had doubted their own ability to perform what was tradi­tionally seen as a “man’s job,” were now being encouraged to become defense workers. They built aircraft, ships, buses, trucks, and trains (which they also operated). They were welders, stevedores, drill press operators, steelworkers, and shipyard workers. What’s more, they quickly discovered that they were perfectly capable of performing many jobs that had previously been restricted to men. It was not long before one quarter of all war effort workers were women, and half of non­-war-related jobs were held by women. By 1943, Fortune maga­zine declared the margin of victory to be “woman power.”

Particularly interesting is the impact that the war had on African American women. Prior to the war, black women were twice as likely to be employed outside the home as white women, but primarily in the most menial of positions, general­ly in domestic service. While the onset of the war brought increasing opportunities for women, many industries gave preference first to white women, then black men, and lastly to African American women. Nevertheless, many black women were able to leave domestic service to accept jobs in war-related industries. By the end of the war, eighteen percent of African American women workers were employed in factories and enjoying moderately improved wages, although many of the jobs they were ultimately able to find were at the lowest pay and status levels. In most cases these modest gains were short-lived, however, as African American women were customarily the first workers dismissed in the post-World War II era.

In part because they were in demand, women commanded higher wages than they had ever known before in some of the wartime industries. Trade unions and the federal government, at least on paper, encouraged equal pay for equal work. But success was mixed. While women in the defense industry were earning, in some cases, a “man’s wage,” jobs were frequently given different titles to allow a lower wage scale for compara­ble work performed by women. Overall, women’s wages in the total work force never exceeded fifty-five percent of their male co-workers.

At the outbreak of World War II, three assumptions had been made: women joined industry “for the duration” of the war; women would retain their femininity, even while performing masculine duties; and, finally, their “eternal feminine motivations” for working were primarily to bring the men-husbands, brothers, sons, fathers, uncles-home quickly. At the onset of the war ninety-five percent of the working women had indicated that they intended to quit when the war was over. However, by 1944, that number had dwindled to twenty percent. Nonetheless, by the end of 1946, two million women had been discharged from heavy industry. Certainly, some left the work force willingly. The dual roles of homemaker and worker, who routinely worked between forty-four and forty­-eight hours each week, proved exhausting to many. Societal pressures and advertising encouraged women to resume their more “traditional” fami­ly roles, reestablishing the axiom that “a woman’s place is in the home,” and suggesting that mothers working “outside” threatened the well-being of the American family. Many women, particularly widows, single parents, and minori­ties, wanted to work and some needed to work because it was a financial necessity. Yet the system had reverted to one that largely excluded women from better-paying jobs, and many were forced back into more traditionally “feminine” jobs. After all, it was one thing to encourage women to work in industry during an emergency, and quite another to add them to the permanent work force – with the same wages as men! Despite many labor saving and safety improvements introduced by industries because of the perceived needs and limitations of women, companies were not inclined to retain women, or to hire them in peacetime. In many cases, it was men who benefited from these wartime improvements, and the opportunities for women were not significantly affected.

Despite the limitations which were again imposed on them, women would never play the same role as they had in the pre­war and wartime years. World War II in manifold ways marked a vanguard for working women. Having recognized their abili­ty to perform jobs for which they had been told they were not suited, and having attained salary ranges they had never before enjoyed, women began a continuing search for improved employment opportunities. It may have been the end of the war, but it was only the beginning of the lengthy struggle for women’s place in the work force.

As both the nation and state observe the fiftieth anniversary of World War II, Americans and Pennsylvanians recognize the significant contributions and sacrifices that the Keystone State’s women – the steve­dores, the mechanics, the welders – made at home. And all recognize that their accom­plishment is just one of many achieved by the brave women and men of Pennsylvania working hand in hand, side by side, on the battlefield and on the home front during World War II.


Quotes on Women in the Workplace

A great many women are working in industry today because their husbands or others dear to them are in the armed services. They know that their jobs are duration jobs and will dissolve when the war is over. Some of them will probably be eager to luxuriate in homemaking once the men are back. – Wanted: Women in the War Industry, 1944.

Because airplanes are constructed of so many small delicately balanced parts, women’s smaller, more deft hands have become a vital asset to their construction. – Wanted: Women in the War Industry, 1944.

You must admit, for it is a well established fact, that you are a vain creature. And all the factory jobs in the country, whatever their compensations, would not appeal to you if you had to appear before your fellow workers wearing some “simply horrid looking thing!” – Wanted: Women in the War Industry, 1944.

[The] companionship of working with others is vastly more stimulating and rewarding than housework. – Ladies Home Journal, June 1944

Five feet one from her 4A slippers to her spun-gold hair. She loves flower-hats, veils, smooth orchestra – s­and being kissed by a boy who’s now in North Africa …. How can 110 pounds of beauty boss 147,000 pounds of steel? … through the modern magic of electric power. The magic that makes it possible for a girl’s slim fingers to lift mountains of metal. – Electric Companies, June 13, 1943.

A more difficult prejudice to overcome is the notion that woman’s place is in the home. In the days when the home was itself a busy crowded place where some of the necessities, such as clothes, were even manufactured, a woman was perhaps indispensable. But times and homes have changed, and with them, traditional ideas about women are changing too. A woman’s place has come to be the one where she is most happy and useful, and for many that means a job in industry. – Wanted: Women in the War Industry, 1944.


For Further Reading

Anderson, Karen Tucker. “Last Hired, First Fired: Black Women Workers during World War II.” Journal of American History 69 (June 1982): 82-97.

Baker, Laura Nelson. Wanted: Women in the War Industry. New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, Inc., 1943.

Chafe, William. The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.

Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.

Hymowitz, Carol, and Michaele Weissman. A History of Women in America. New York: Bantam Books, 1978.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Mezerik, A. G. “Getting Rid of the Women.” Atlantic Monthly 175 (June 1945): 79-83.

Pennsylvania at War, 1941-1945. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1946.


Diane B. Reed, a resident of Carlisle, serves as head of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s publications and sales program. A graduate of the University of Massachusetts, she earned her master’s degree in American Studies from Penn State, Harrisburg. Her interests include photography, traveling, gardening, and films. Previous contributions to Pennsylvania Heritage include “Steel on the Susquehanna” (summer 1990); “The Magic of Mount Gretna: An Interview with Jack Bitner” (spring 1992); and “Sail on, O Ship of State: An Interview with Capt. Walter Rybka of the U. S. Brig Niagara” (summer 1993).