The Defining Generation
Defining the Role of the Sexes
Rosie the Riveter
ONE interesting commonality of the 60s Revolution is the fact that in general, army of baby-boomers in rebellion against "old ways" rallied under the leadership of older men and women of the "Greatest Generation" like the forward-thinking President John Kennedy and the dynamic Dr. Martin Luther King. Even in the dramatic and sometimes violent protest against the war in Vietnam, draft-dodgers and anti-war activists were led and inspired by the older men and women of the very generation they challenged. In similar fashion, both the leadership and the example for young women who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, often came from members of the older generation who had experienced first hand the gender injustice.
In many ways an armistice was reached in the gender war following ratification of the 19th Amendment granting American women the right to vote. Historically, the so-called First Wave of Feminism in America ended with that change in our Constitution. Throughout the "Roaring Twenties" that followed, young women experienced and flaunted a new sense of freedom from traditional and strongly-Victorian values of the past. Flappers, as this new generation of American women became known, openly smoked cigarettes, drank hard liquor, wore excessive makeup, danced provocatively, and dated socially (as opposed to matrimonially). Corsets were discarded, dress hems rose to reveal bare legs below the knees, and necklines assumed a modest yet newly-provocative "V" shape. Flappers also popularized a close-cropped, short hair style rejected by more traditional men and women.
Virtue, as well as fashion, succumbed to the hedonistic excess of the Roaring Twenties. Traditionally, sexual activity was considered the "duty" of a wife and the "right" of a man. For centuries feminine virtue had been prized and promiscuity abhorred, despite the contradictory fact that male prowess was frequently admired and envied. During the Roaring Twenties, sexually liberated young women exploded many of the old myths about a woman's right to enjoy sex. While intercourse remained taboo among even the most liberal young girls of the decade, primarily due to the risk of pregnancy, "petting parties" were both popular and acceptable.
The Roaring Twenties ended
with a crash--the sudden collapse of the Stock Market on October 29, 1929.
That event was to usher in a decade dominated by the Great Depression, a
period of unemployment, hardship, and devastating loss. In that great
crisis our nation, as do most civilizations during unsettling times, went
through a period of spiritual revival. It is a fact of life that in times
of crisis when all other sources of hope seem to have vanished, prayer
remains the only alternative and people turn to God. Many Americans of the
1930s ultimately began to see the tragic turn of evens in American as
God's punishment on society for the erosion of morality during the Roaring
While one might be inclined
to believe that the acceptance of women in the work force would have
increased during the depression, out of the sheer need for a two-income
household, the reverse tended to prevail. Women who had previously held
salaried jobs were encouraged to LEAVE the workforce, and any who refused
to do so were looked upon as self-serving. In the Depression Era, a
working woman was viewed as selfishly keeping for herself a job that
should properly be held by a man who needed to support his family. In
1936, more than 80% of Americans believed that women should not work if
their husbands had a job, and laws were proposed that would prohibit
married women from working. In addition, both women and men agreed that
married women should give up their jobs if their husbands wanted them to.
In all, some 26 individual states passed Depression Era laws restricting
the employment of married women.
It was during this period that many of the young girls came of age that would ultimately launch and lead a Second Wave of Feminism in America beginning in the 1960s. Bettye Naomi Goldstein witnessed the Roaring Twenties as a young girl and survived the Great Depression during her teen years. In 1963 under her married name Betty Friedan, she authored The Feminine Mystique in which she pictured the traditional roles of homemaker/mother/wife as stifling and oppressive. Her best selling novel is often considered the "shot-across-the-bow" that launched a second women's revolution.
Before that "shot" was heard however, the United States was confronted with a new and far-more-real war when, on December 7, 1941, Japanese bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in the Territory of Hawaii. It was a tragedy that plunged our nation into a world war that we were vastly unprepared to fight, and that would require the cooperation of all of our people, male and female, to win.
In 1939 the United States' military ranked 17th in the world and was vastly unprepared for war; our army numbered only about 175,000 men. With prospects of war looming, a 1940 resumption of a military draft swelled those ranks to 1,400,000 men before the opening of hostilities. It was a number far below the more than 16 million men and women that would ultimately be needed to fight and win that war. In a decade during which our nation's population numbered some 140 million men, women, and children, nearly than one-in-eight Americans was called to active service in the various armed forces. That demand paved the way for expanded roles and new opportunities for women in military service, which we will examine in a subsequent chapter.
During the Depression Era a working woman was seen as supplanting a man who desperately needed a job to support his family. One decade later however, a non-working woman was seen as unpatriotically shirking her duty, thereby forcing a man to do the work he might otherwise be freed up from in order to fight a war. Though in previous wars and crisis gender roles became blurred out of necessity, during World War II role-reversals were unprecedented. A woman doing a "man's job" became not only acceptable, it was her patriotic duty.
Women served during that war in any number of positions, including nearly a half-million who served in or with the Armed Forces. Certainly the number of women who worked in clerical, supply, and other more traditional roles whether as civilians or military women, made significant contributions to the war effort. But the striking, and ultimately the most revolutionary expansion of roles for working women came in the physically demanding and dirty "men's world" of defense industry production.
Prior to World War II such factory work was deemed inappropriate for women and, in fact and in general, women were deemed physically, mentally and/or emotionally incapable of such work. In 1940 only 28% of American women were employed in wage-earning jobs, and most of those were mundane positions requiring little education or physical stamina. Only 11% of working women served in factories, and factory supervisors concluded that fewer than a 1/3 of factory jobs were suitable for the "weaker sex." Six months after Pearl Harbor, with the need for an increased production that would ultimately call for more than 300,000 aircraft alone, factory supervisors revised their estimate of woman-capable positions to entail 85% of the war production jobs. Simultaneously, as recruiting drives and the Selective Service sought to fill the ranks of the military with combat soldiers, and as War Bond Drives worked to bolster the national coffers with the dollars needed to fund the war, similar campaigns were launched to recruit women to build tanks, aircraft, and machineguns, as well as to produce the needed massive quantities of bullets, bombs, and other munitions. Even in the gritty world of ship-building, which had never before welcomed a woman's hand, more than 10% of the World War II production of some 1,500 new warships was developed under the sweaty hand of a woman worker.
In all, from 1942 until 1945, more than 6 million women were added to the American work force. One of those was Geraldine Doyle, a 17-year old girl who went to work pressing metal in a Michigan factory in 1942. A photograph taken of her during the one-week she held that job later became the basis of a poster designed by J. Howard Miller for a Westinghouse War Production campaign to recruit women. In that now classic poster her arm is flexed and the caption reads "We Can Do It!" Ultimately that poster would become historically tied to "Rosie the Riveter," though in 1942 that character who came to symbolize the contribution of American working women in the war effort had not yet been identified.
Rosie was specifically identified in the 1942 song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. The lyrics gave a new glimpse of the American woman working in support of the war effort:
By early 1943 the war effort had brought more than two million women into the work force but more than twice that number was needed. The lack of volunteers is understandable; for decades, in fact for centuries, women had been briskly turned away from the working world. Married women, and especially those with children, had been taught that their proper place was in the home. Thus was mounted an intensive re-education campaign to let American women know that working, at least for NOW, was not only appropriate but necessary.
This was a period when there was nothing that represented American values more than a Norman Rockwell painting, thus the May 29, 1934, edition of The Saturday Evening Post attributed such Americana to Rosie with a Rockwell portrait on its cover. The NEW American woman was portrayed in coveralls, her face and muscular arms smudged with dirt as she cradled a rivet gun in her lap. Virtually every major magazine joined the Office of War Information and War Manpower Commission in a continuing blitz featuring women at work, many of them prominently displaying Rockwell's or J. Howard Miller's poster. It became one of the war's most effective campaigns, albeit one with unintended consequences that would resurface two decades later.
By the time World War II ended, 6 million women who might otherwise never have considered outside-the-home employment raised the number of working American women 18 million. That employment experience left these women not only with a sense of accomplishment at contributing in a meaningful way to victory in both Europe and the Pacific, but with the realization that a woman could in fact, succeed and excel in a man's world of work. Furthermore, since many of these women who had flocked to the factories were mothers, Rosies had proved that an American woman could do what society previously believed was unworkable, the simultaneous fulfillment of the roles of both mother and working woman.
In 1945 the return and discharge of millions of men from the armed forces generated the demand for new jobs. Rosie the Riveter and her California cousin Wendy the Welder were no longer needed in the factories, and these women were expected to demurely give up their positions in deference to the returning men. The same Depression Era guilt trip was resurrected; any working woman was stealing from a returning (male) veteran the job he needed in order to rebuild his life and provide for his family.
The pressure was strong and although some women refused to give up their new careers, most bowed the societal pressure to return to the kitchen of their modest home with its white picket fence, to raise children while their husband embarked on a career to enable him to achieve the American Dream. Indeed, many women were content to do so, preferring the traditional domestic lifestyle. But for many others, even as they dutifully resumed the proper role of wife and mother, there remained the lingering memory of that period in history when, for the briefest of time, they had found a meaningful role outside the boundaries of traditional womanhood.
Perhaps however, the most remarkable post-war role the iconic Rosies served was to provide a new generation of women with an example of a strong and capable womanhood to follow. During the war women of the Greatest Generation rose to the challenge, did what they had to do, and proved themselves to vastly capable and visibly successful. Even in so-doing, however, their experience had not been totally without traditional prejudice. During the war those women who worked in the factories to do a man's job, rarely received a man's wages. Typically the average man was paid about $55 per week for wartime factory production work; a Rosie performing the same job received only slightly more than $30 per week.
Furthermore, even during the war while women had been not only encouraged but eagerly recruited into the work force, there remained limits on what they could do. Certainly they proved they could operate a lathe, drive and smash rivets, weld, fly and ferry aircraft from one location to another, and other traditional male jobs.
That prowess aside, women workers were generally relegated to "worker bee" tasks. Supervisory roles remained largely male-dominated, a subliminal message that even the working woman needed to have a male authority figure to guide her. That reluctance to elevate women into upper management positions would, in the years that followed, become known as a "glass ceiling." It was a barrier waiting to be shattered.
Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social
Change. Twayne Publishers, Boston, MA: 1987.
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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