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World War II on Women in the Workplace

In 1939, employed men as a group were likely to make less than $1,000 a year and the employed wives of such men likely to earn as little as $200, "but their economic contribution often provided something as basic as a roof over their head or enough food for their children to eat" (Gluck, 1987, p. 8). But as Gluck explains, despite the raw economic necessities for women in traditional roles to work outside the home, "82 percent of the population felt that wives should not work if their husbands had jobs. Furthermore, a majority believed that laws should be passed to prohibit wives from working." The conflict between culture and need, then, prevailed up to the time of the war, and can be seen as an important aspect of the economic system:

The fact that so many married women, even in the poorest segment of the population, did not work is a measure of the limited availability of jobs, the heavy burden carried by women in the home, and the resistance by both men and women to changing definitions of women's proper role in society. Women, above all, were supposed to be wives and mothers--even though marriage and birthrates were plummeting in response to the economic hardships of the depression (Gluck, 1987, p. 8).

The war simplified the issues surrounding the shoulds and oughts of social role-playing vis-a-vis economic necessity, although in the process it complicated so many other aspects of society that such issues were to arise in the postwar culture as well. In this connection, descriptions of women who participated in the social changes that were implicit in the economic changes that occurred as a result of the war are quite revealing:

There was one good thing that came out of it [the war]. I had friends whose mothers went to work in factories. For the first time in their lives, they worked outside the home. They realized that they were capable of doing something more than cook a meal. I remember going to Sunday dinner...

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