Women

   The years of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War had complicated and often contradictory effects on the position of women in U.S. society. Despite winning the vote in 1920 and the apparent liberation experienced during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s, the status of women changed very little, as the Depression made all too apparent. In 1930, 10.7 million women were in paid employment. This represented about 22 percent of the labor force and a similar proportion of women over the age of 16. Almost 60 percent of those women were African Americans or of immigrant stock. With so many men forced out of work during the Depression, a large numbers of women sought work to support their families. The percentage of the female workforce that was married rose from about 20 percent to 35 percent during the 1930s. However, many people believed that women should not work while men were unemployed, and some employers agreed. They refused to employ married women, and some, particularly schools and banks, dismissed women who married. At the same time, female unemployment rates often rose at a faster rate than those of men. Twenty percent of women were unemployed at the height of the Depression. Women were generally paid less than men, and those who remained in work, already low-paid, often faced wage cuts.
   Although the New Deal appeared sympathetic to the plight of women and the Roosevelt administration held a White House Conference on the Emergency Needs of Women in 1933, actions on their behalf were scarce. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a number of women to key positions. Frances Perkins was appointed as secretary of labor, and Ellen Woodward worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA). African American women were represented by Mary McLeod Bethune at the National Youth Administration. Women like Molly Dewson were organizers for the Democratic Party, and equally important was the very public role of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. However, women were not as fully included in New Deal agencies as men and were often paid lower rates. Approximately 5,000 women, only two-thirds of whom were eligible, were employed by the WPA in 1938, and the occupations available to them were initially limited to sewing projects and recreation work. Although they benefited from New Deal legislation like the Fair Labor Standards Act, many women workers, concentrated as they were in domestic and service industries, were excluded. The portrayal of women in cinema, entertainment, and the visual arts tended to reinforce the trends of the 1930s. Although one of the leading photographers of the period was a woman, Dorothea Lange, her images, like many others, often suggested that women and the family were the chief victims of the economic crisis and reinforced the centrality of family as an ideal. Mae West was probably the only female in movies to challenge the established order, if only in terms of her sexual independence, although the portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara in the film version of Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War epic Gone with the Wind (1939) also presents a woman who is determined to face and overcome adversity. In John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and its 1940 film version, women move from the periphery to the center as the Joad family disintegrates.
   World War II brought a dramatic change to women’s situations. During the war, some 6 million women went into war plants encouraged by a massive recruiting drive that produced several iconic images of Rosie the Riveter in film and advertising. From 1942 onward, 332,000 women also served in noncombatant roles in the U.S. armed forces in the Women’s Army Corps (WACS); Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Services (WAVES); the Coast Guard, known as SPARS from “Semper Paratus—Always Ready,” the Marine Corps Women Reserves, and the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots. By 1945, women comprised 36 percent of the labor force and were working in heavy industry, shipyards, and the aircraft industry, as well as in government itself. About 60 percent of the new women workers were married. However, no matter what their marital status, wage rates still tended to be lower than men’s, despite “equal pay” agreements, and women were denied an equal share of betterpaid and managerial roles.
   Throughout the 1930s and the 1940s, women often succeeded in the movies because of their appearance and sexual allure. While Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo exuded mystery and sensuality, others like Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Carole Lombard became famous simply as “pin-up girls”—innocent but beautiful sex symbols. They were also very active in morale-boosting tours for troops during the war. Even in movies, women characters portrayed by actresses like Katherine Hepburn could appear as independent career women until they finally capitulated to the man. Women often succeeded in on-screen and sometimes off-screen partnerships, as with Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, and Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd. There were exceptions to these patterns, as in the case of Bette Davis, but they were rare.
   At the end of the war, more than 2 million female workers were laid off, and their percentage in the labor force dropped back down to 29 percent in 1947. Despite this, the pattern of female employment never returned to prewar levels, and by 1950 almost 34 percent of women over the age of 16 were in paid employment. These women constituted just under 30 percent of the labor force, and the trend continued upward through the decade. But the postwar years also seemed to encourage a return to domesticity with an increase in marriage rates and a “baby boom.” The best-selling book of the late 1940s and early 1950s was Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care (1946), which recommended a new cult of domesticity and motherhood. Fashion once more emphasized the feminine shape, and women in the movies were portrayed as loyal wives, dizzy blondes, and sex symbols. Father Knows Best, a successful radio sitcom, was transferred equally successfully to television in 1954. Although by 1950 10 million, or 25 percent, of married women were actually in paid employment, during the Cold War the American family unit, which included the working husband and domestic wife raising the children at home, was presented as an ideal alternative to the situation in the communist Soviet Union.
   One consequence of these trends was a decline in the proportion of women attending university. In the 1920s, more than 30 percent of students were female. After World War II, this number fell to 20 percent. The results were evident in employment patterns: In 1950, women constituted 30 percent of the workforce but only 1.2 percent of engineers, 4.1 percent of lawyers, and 6 percent of physicians and osteopaths, though 98 percent of registered nurses were women.

Historical Dictionary of the Roosevelt–Truman Era . . 2015.

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