When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again – The Roots of American Feminism

Most Americans are familiar with images of Rosie the Riveter as a champion of women in the workforce during World War II.  It’s also fairly common knowledge that the shift away from so-called “traditional” gender roles that began during WWII and intensified after the war led to the modern feminist movement.  The Second World War wasn’t the first time American women entered the workforce in large numbers though – the same thing happened during World War I!  So why did the 1940s and 50s usher in a new era of gender relations instead of the 1920s?

Women at the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach, CA. (Library of Congress)

When American men went away to fight in WWI, the women who stayed behind were tasked with not only keeping their homes running, but also with filling the jobs those men left behind.  In fact, millions of women entered the American workforce during the First World War, many of them in traditionally male occupations.  Although they did a fantastic job of keeping the country running and providing for both the soldiers on the front lines and those still at home, when the war ended and the troops came home, most of those women were pushed out of their jobs and back into their previous roles as wives and mothers.

Fast forward to America’s entry into World War II and we will see history repeating itself.  Once again, millions of women flocked from their homes to newly vacated jobs in factories, government offices, and even the military!  However, when this war ended and Johnny came marching home again (hurrah, hurrah!), something very different happened.  Though some women did return to their previous occupation as homemakers, many women chose to remain in the workforce despite growing societal pressure not to.  This, in turn, would eventually lead to the feminist movement as we know it.

How is it that what seems to be the same situation could lead to such a wildly different outcome?  The answer lies in a “perfect storm” of conditions during and after WWII.

Despite the fact that the United States’ economy was bolstered by WWI, the prosperity of wartime didn’t linger (though, of course, it would return in the 1920s ahead of the Great Depression).  In practical terms, this means that when the troops came home from Europe, there weren’t enough jobs to keep both the newly employed women and the returning soldiers in the workforce.  So, in accordance with the day’s mores, men got the jobs that were available.  In contrast, due to exponential growth in production capabilities during WWII, when the troops arrived back on America’s shores, there was work for anyone of any gender who wanted to work.

“Even with the availability of jobs,” I can hear you saying, “American values surely hadn’t changed that much!”

The answer to that is: yes, and no.  Let’s take a look at how technology progressed during both wars to see if we can clear it up a little.

Whereas most technological advancements during WWI had been directly related to the war effort and had little impact on the masses in its immediate aftermath, during WWII, technology as a whole had moved forward by leaps and bounds.  These advances led to the ability to build houses and cars less expensively as well as the rise of consumer electronics like televisions, washing machines, dryers, and (much later) microwaves.  Additionally, air travel became a viable way for regular Americans to travel both inside the country and internationally for vacation.

The late 1940s and (especially) the 1950s and 1960s saw a level of technology that those living in the pre-WWII depression could only have dreamed of.  Suddenly, it was possible to own a house in a developing suburb (another result of the war!) filled with nice furniture and creature comforts that your parents would never have imagined, with a yard big enough for your kids to play in.  You could also own a car (or two!) and fly your family to the newly created Disneyland for vacation.

Those things still cost money, though, and even though they were incredibly inexpensive by today’s standards, they were still more than most families could afford if the husband was the only person working outside the home.  For many couples, the answer to being able to have everything they wanted was that both partners would work.  Two incomes – even if they were unequal – could buy more things than a single income.  This realization was the missing piece of the puzzle, the subtle straw that tipped the cart of gender roles in the wake of WWII.

With jobs available and the promise of a nicer life for a family with two incomes, many women chose to stay in (or return to) the workforce.  This led to a general trend toward ideas of equality in the United States because if women were going to work, shouldn’t they be compensated fairly?  And, shouldn’t men share in the housework if women were sharing in the out-of-home work?  Shouldn’t responsibility for raising children fall to both parents if they shared the other responsibilities of the home?  Slowly but surely, these ideas became more cemented; ideas which would bring about feminism as a concentrated social movement.

These shifts in gender roles were not, of course, without their detractors.  Many Americans decried the loss of “real” men and women and the established structure of American society that came along with these blurred gender roles.  That’s a topic for another post, though!

Some links if you want to learn more:

Women in WWI and WWII (general information)
Women in the WWII workforce
US economy during WWI and WWII
WWII Technology
The Jet Sex by Victoria Vantoch (a book that has a lot of information about the rise of consumer culture)


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