Women and World War II
While many students are familiar with the great battles of WWII (usually through movies), few of them are aware of what a large part women played in the war. When I teach WWII in the American history survey, I divide it into two classes. During the first class we discuss the overall picture of the war: how the war began, the major battles, and the conclusion. Once the students understand the broader picture of what happened in the war, we spend the second class discussing how the war affected the American people at home and how women contributed to the war effort.
I begin the second WWII class with a picture of Rosie the Riveter. I ask the students if they know who the woman in the picture is. Usually I get one or two raised hands that have a vague idea that she did something during WWII. This begins our discussion of women’s roles in WWII. I believe focusing on the American home front during WWII to be just as important as the discussion of the war itself. Without those at home and their contributions, victory would never have been possible. Women are throughout the discussion of the home front as they took factory jobs, grew victory gardens, recycled kitchen fats, and served in military auxiliary groups. Students are usually shocked at just how instrumental women were to the war effort.
The propaganda posters created by the government during WWII are great visual aids for teaching the role of women in WWII and I show these in a PowerPoint throughout the class. The posters cover employment, rationing, conservation, victory gardens, war bonds, and the importance of secrecy. The students seem to really enjoy the posters. I do like to balance them with some actual pictures of women factory workers and military auxiliary members since so many of the posters present a glamourized female image and African-American and women of other ethnicities were left out of the posters.
It is always interesting to see how surprised students are that the American government and society began to encourage women to work when in previous decades women had been discouraged from working. We finish the class with an activity discussing society’s attitude toward women workers. I offer primary documents covering why women should work, how to “handle” female workers, and how to make the disruption of “normal” life by the work of women acceptable to men and women. The rest of the class is devoted to how these documents reflect society’s views on women, why men and women needed to be convinced that women should work, and how different things would have been if women had not worked.
This is a very popular class with students, especially the propaganda posters, and it serves as a great lead in to the post-war years and the forcing of women out of the workplace and back into the home. Students are shocked that society expected women to return to their homes after their contributions during the war.
About.com 20th Century History – World War II Posters: Women
Life – Women of Steel: Life with Female Factory Workers in World War II
The National Archives – It’s a Woman’s War Too! http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/powers_of_persuasion/its_a_womans_war_too/its_a_womans_war_too.html
Women in the Work Force during WWII Primary Documents
Women of World War II