Whether it was assembling aircraft or cultivating crops, women had a hugely important role to play in World War II. But with color photography in its infancy, their extraordinary efforts were predominantly immortalized in black and white. Decades later, modern technology has allowed us to inject a splash of color into these historic images. And they cast a brand-new light on the astonishing achievements of working women in wartime.
While WWII would eventually open the doors to a greater variety of jobs, a good number of women were already part of the workforce. In fact, around 25 percent of U.S. women were employed outside their homes by 1940, according to the Khan Academy. But the majority of these women hailed from minority and working class backgrounds – driven in part by the loss of income suffered in the Great Depression.
Furthermore, the jobs undertaken by these women were limited in scope. They were also usually related to what were female-dominated professions: such as teaching, typing or sewing. And the majority of those who did work were also expected to leave their posts upon starting a family. Simply put, there weren’t many options for the ambitious working woman at the time.
Many men had an antiquated view of working women at the time; for example, some held the view that women should only be allowed to work jobs that men preferred not to perform. Others believed that middle- or upper-class women should never have to work. And some even thought that employed women should relinquish their jobs to unemployed men – particularly amidst the Great Depression.
But these men would soon have no choice but to reconsider their attitudes towards female workers. You see, when the U.S. joined the conflict after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was forced to call on its entire population to aid the war effort. Women soon found themselves thrust into work, and this put the U.S. squarely at odds with Germany – where leader Adolf Hitler decreed that the role of women was solely as mothers and wives.
For many women, the departure of their husbands meant that their responsibilities increased. Not only were they placed in sole charge of managing their households, they also had to join the effort on the home front – filling the gap left behind by the men fighting overseas. And that meant overcoming not just male attitudes towards women working, but in some cases, female attitudes too.
To ensure that women would take up the mantle, then, the government launched a countrywide publicity campaign. Fronted by one of the era’s most well-known icons – Rosie the Riveter – the posters and films were intended to encourage women to take up factory jobs and join assembly lines. It’s little wonder Rosie is now so renowned, though, given the role that she played in revolutionizing the image of women in society.
In 1942 J. Howard Miller created a now-iconic poster for the campaign – depicting the then-nameless Rosie in a blue work shirt and red bandana. With a confident, determined expression, she flexes her muscles and proclaims, “We can do it!” While the poster itself was simply one cog in a bigger machine at the time, it helped to sell the idea that women could – and indeed should – enter the workforce.
As the war effort ramped up, many women began heading west – chasing a newly revitalized American dream. The U.S. government was busy ploughing money into new shipyards and airplane factories in California. And the result was the most sizeable mass migration in U.S. history, according to Smithsonianmag.com.
In California and elsewhere, women quickly took up the reins in positions that were now newly open to them. Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to find jobs in munitions, and the new factories provided the opportunities to do so. The result was a rapid, widespread increase in the number of women working in the defense industry.
For the four years from 1940, The Metropolitan State University of Denver says that the total number of women employed in the U.S. defense industry ballooned by an incredible 462 percent. Elsewhere, History.com found that in 1943 a whopping 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry alone – marking 65 percent of the trade’s total workforce. Prior to the war, just one percent of aircraft industry employees had been women.
What’s more, industry experts quickly realized that women were uniquely suited to many facets of aircraft assembly. It’s thought that they were particularly good at riveting, for instance – because it shared many qualities with sewing. But at the same time, the women who joined these factories were learning new skills, too.
Glenn Martin – co-founder of the company that would form part of the defense titan Lockheed Martin – told National Geographic in 1944, “We have women helping design our planes in the engineering departments. [They are] building them on the production line, [and] operating almost every conceivable type of machinery – from rivet guns to giant stamp presses.”
And where the defense and aviation industries saw a considerable increase in the number of female workers, other sectors followed. Indeed, women flocked to non-traditional jobs in the automobile, shipbuilding, steel and metal industries – all aiming to support the war effort. They also often traveled many miles to do so and brought an economic boom to manufacturing cities.
For example, the National Archives estimated that around 90,000 people converged on the city of Mobile, Alabama, where multiple factories were working to serve the increased demand for war supplies. In fact, one of Mobile’s plants was responsible for just over a third of the U.S.’s aluminum – a key resource for constructing airplanes. And while some men continued to work at these factories, the role of women in their success was unquestionable.
Armed with their new transferable skills and tools, these working women saw a tangible knock-on effect in their domestic lives, too, as they became increasingly self-sufficient. For instance, they would no longer have to rely on their husbands or male friends and acquaintances for home repairs. Now, they could simply fix everything themselves.
And it wasn’t just in factories that women proved a vital part of the war effort. Around 350,000 joined the military – serving in the U.S. and overseas. And in May 1942 – at the behest of a number of women’s groups and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – Congress established the first female service branch: the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WACs)– now known as the Women’s Army Corps.
According to History,com, by the end of World War II, the U.S. Army counted more than 100,000 WACs among its ranks – along with 6,000 female officers. They were deployed in over 200 non-combatant roles across the globe and eventually joined other branches of the military, too.
Women quickly became an integral part of not just the U.S. Army, then, but also the Navy, Coast Guard, Airforce and Marine Corps. And without them, General Dwight D. Eisenhower claimed that the war may never have been won. He famously said, “The contribution of the women of America – whether on the farm or in the factory or in uniform – to D-Day was a sine qua non of the invasion effort.”
In joining the military, women were apparently aiming to free up men to fight by taking on non-combat roles. Some served as engineers or truck drivers, while others operated radios or translated intercepted enemy transmissions. One all-female battalion was even sent to process undelivered mail across Europe. But it was the nurses working on the front lines who were most often in danger.
One such nurse was Second Lieutenant Elsie S. Ott – the first woman to help evacuate injured troops from Karachi, India. Having never flown before, she had just a day’s notice to prepare for the inaugural “air ambulance” recovery. But while the journey was arduous, it was nevertheless successful, and it led to Ott earning the first Air Medal ever awarded to a woman by the U.S. Army.
The first females ever to pilot aircraft in the U.S. military, however, were the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). The individuals who served in this role were already in possession of a pilot’s license prior to signing up. They mostly performed cargo and simulation missions – freeing up male pilots for active duty. And according to History.com, 38 of the more than 1,000 WASPs serving never returned home from the war.
Even though the WASPs carried out important duties for the U.S. Army, they were technically civil servants. As a result, those who lost their lives during WWII were given no military benefits or honors until 1977 – when they were finally granted full military status. Thirty-three years later the U.S. government awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the WASPs in a ceremony attended by more than 200 former pilots.
Despite being restricted to non-combat roles, as many as 543 American servicewomen still lost their lives as a direct result of the war. Among that number, 16 members of the Army Nurse Corps were killed by enemy fire while serving on the front line. And in the Philippines, 68 serving U.S. women were captured as prisoners of war. Furthermore, by the end of the conflict, over 1,600 nurses had received honors for their service.
Some supported the war effort more indirectly; thousands of women worked on the development of the atomic bomb – breaking down barriers in the scientific field as they did so. In a 2011 interview for the Voices of the Manhattan Project website, physicist Anne McKusick explained, “Women weren’t thought to be capable of learning the subject, or [they] thought that it was strictly a man’s field at that time.”
Almost a million women went into federal jobs – earning them the nickname “government girls.” While many of Washington’s older bureaucrats were apparently alarmed by this development, these female pioneers would ultimately reshape the landscape there. As Megan Rosenfeld wrote for the Washington Post in 1999, “Their youth, competence, energy, enthusiasm and problems were sometimes disconcerting to the wider world, [which was] unaccustomed to working women but unable to manage the war effort without their help.”
Another three million women joined the Women’s Land Army – which sought to combat the agricultural crisis wrought by the war. By the summer of 1942 the industry had lost over two million male workers, and this forced the government to reach out to nonfarm women. And they responded emphatically – driving tractors, cultivating crops, milking cows and ensuring food was available both at home and on the front line.
Advertising and insurance companies also began recruiting females in record numbers – as did the banking sector. According to Oxford Research Encyclopedias, the number of women working in banks doubled from from 65,000 up to 130,000 over the course of WWII. And by the close of 1944 they made up almost half of the banking industry’s employees.
And in some states, women found themselves behind the wheels of public transportation. As demand rose for more services, so too did the demand for personnel, and the void was quickly filled by female workers. In Utah, women drove taxis and buses; in New Orleans, they carved out new roles as streetcar “conductorettes.”
Some women, meanwhile, took up more traditionally female roles. These included painting radium onto cockpit instruments to allow pilots to see them in the dark, or sewing together upholstery for aircraft. But these duties were arguably no less important – and the women were still working. According to The National WWII Museum, some five million women entered the workforce during the war – contributing to a total of 19 million women serving on the home front.
Even those women too young to enter employment made specific preparations to do so – often by going into education. This not only allowed them to learn skills needed for the war effort, but also plugged the gap left behind by male college students. At New York University, for instance, female students comprised over half the entire student body between 1943 and 1945.
Of course, for those women who were also mothers, employment incurred its own complications. As they struggled to balance their new jobs with childcare, increasing numbers of women were forced to miss work. Eventually, the government stepped in and introduced a series of grants in 1940 for communities that revolved around defense production.
Two years later First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped establish government childcare facilities through the Community Facilities Act. A total of seven centers were then set up around the country – able to service more than 100,000 children. However, even these measures were still not enough to completely fulfil the needs of working mothers.
As women continued to push the boundaries of male attitudes, they inevitably found a measure of cultural resistance. After all, these were traditionally male-dominated workplaces, and men worried that throwing women into the mix would make them more masculine. Incredibly, some factory owners even responded by giving makeup tutorials to their female employees.
Moreover, working women quickly discovered that their newfound equal access to career opportunities wasn’t met with equal pay – despite government regulations decreeing otherwise. The Oxford Research Encyclopedias noted that the average weekly pay for a skilled female worker in 1944 was just $31.21 – compared to $54.65 for a man working a similar position. But the heavy industries that were now open to women still provided a significant wage boost over retail, clerical or service jobs.
That lack of equality also extended into other spheres, including race. For example, African-American women faced a smaller variety of job opportunities. And even where they did find work, white women were often hostile towards them. What’s more, there was also a wage disparity between the two groups.
Japanese-American women, meanwhile, were heavily affected by the United States’ policy of internment. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, around 120,000 people with Japanese heritage were forcibly relocated to remote camps in the west of the country. Unsurprisingly, this had a severely detrimental effect on the number and variety of jobs available to them.
The challenges faced by women entering the working world didn’t end there, though. Even something as simple as picking up groceries became a headache – with stores often depleted of stock or closed altogether outside of working hours. Women also had to learn to handle their family’s finances, and this was further exacerbated by the introduction of rationing.
After WWII ended, some women expressed a desire to continue in their new roles. But as men returned from the front line, female workers faced inestimable social pressure to relinquish their jobs. And many of those who did stick around often found themselves demoted from the positions that they’d held during the conflict.
However, the wheels of social change were already in motion. Women had become empowered to fight for greater equality in the workplace, while men’s attitudes were slowly beginning to shift. By 1950 nearly a third of American women were in employment, according to the Khan Academy. And as these incredible colorized photographs have illustrated, it was their indispensable role in World War II that helped get the ball rolling.