Once upon a time, women workers were not only highly sought after they were lavished with praise in the media.
During WWII when Uncle Sam came calling, American women didn’t just “lean in,” they manned up!
Uncle Sam had enlisted the real Mad Men of Madison Avenue to conduct a massive campaign to recruit women into the work force.
The advertising campaign – as fierce as any battle on the front lines-was set in motion immediately after Pearl Harbor to not only mobilize women on the home front and get them into the work force but to help shape cultural attitudes.
Operation: Rosie the Riveter
Seemingly overnight, a plethora of ads appeared in all the major magazines glorifying the working woman.
A public more accustomed to seeing their women depicted in dainty dresses while luxing the family dishes, were now being bombarded with images of g0-getter gals dressed in cunning coveralls and bright bandanas lending their visage to hawk everything from soda pop to cigarettes.
With the speed of a blitzkrieg old notions about women’s proper place were swiftly decimated as women took to manning jobs in record numbers.
You’re a Good Soldier Mrs America
During the war hundreds of men were leaving civilian jobs everyday to join the armed forces.
In their place marched in women, who were “carrying on,” performing work that had to be done to keep America’s war program going at top speed.
Replacing men in hundreds of jobs never previously open to them, these “gals were soldiers too,” helping us win the war and maintaining the American Way of Life.
Who Says This is a Mans War?
With great gumption these women took on tasks once considered unladylike, such as tending blast furnaces in steel mills, welding hulls in shipyards, running forklifts and working overtime on the riveting machine.
In the 1942 ad above, General Electric proudly exclaims: “There is no ‘Male Help Only ‘ sign in this war! Never before in American history have so many women been called upon to give so much of their time and energy to war effort.”
Uncle Sam Wants You
No effort was spared to get those ladies out of their flowered aprons and onto the assembly line.
In a 1943 ad prepared in cooperation with the War Advertising Council housewives were scolded: leave your afternoon bridge games and get out and get a job to help the war effort:
Must bullets whine and sirens shriek before all American women realize that the time is here. The time for them to get out and drive a truck, load a freight car, carry a waitress tray, work in a day nursery, operate an elevator?
It goes on to explain
It isn’t pleasant, no! But neither is war. And the war won’t be won unless our men abroad fighting are backed up by our women at home, working.
Sister Can You Spare an Hour?
“Read the want ads in your home paper to see what war jobs there are for women in your area, then register at your local U.S. Employment Service. There are paying jobs in many areas with training for the inexperienced. Get out and work, 4 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours if you can…but work…and stick to it till the war is won.”
It ends on a somber note:
The idle woman will be a very lonely soul this year!
The More Women at Work – the More We’ll Win
Some advertisements were designed specifically to attract women to war work. Many companies that advertised no longer produced consumer goods due to war production demands so ads also served as a way to keep their name in public eye.
Due to the paper shortage for example, Kleenex found itself with little wares to sell to the public, freeing them up to play a major part in the “Women at War Campaign.
Their series of ads went a long way towards convincing the public that a woman’s contribution was vital and nothing to sneeze at!
Initially the question was not “should women work?” but rather a series of questions: What sort of work should women do? Would they require special pampering and frills, should they get paid as much as men; would they become “mannish or or worse…create a distraction for men in the factories?
When Man Power Goes to War
Most thought women could do anything, that is as long as it didn’t require too much physical effort or too heavy or highly skilled operations.
Imagine that! Girls were now operating mimeograph machines! a surprised public learns in this ad.
In offices women left their typewriters and tackled the less feminine mimeograph machine, apparently something above her normal skill set.
“Were telling a lot of the boys goodby these days,” begins this ad from 1942. “Women and girls are taking over in offices with a march song on their lips courage in their heats ability in their hands.”
You Go Girl
But in fact, there was little women didn’t or couldn’t do.
Rosie the Riveter was joined by Winnie the Welder, Sheila the shell loader, Carol the Crane operator, Bessie the Bus driver and Flossie the filling station jockey, to name just a few.
Women Keep em’ Rolling
The ads all made drove home the point that women they were essential in keeping the American way of life.
By joining the ranks of fighting men, working shoulder to shoulder with men, these ads cast women in the long tradition of heroines who helped men in wartime and “helped build the kind of America we are fighting for today.”
In this 1944 vintage ad from Pennsylvania Railroad, women are applauded for serving a varied and vital role on the rails.
Railroading has always been regarded as a mans calling. But when war reached deeply into railroad ranks – taking from the Pennsylvania Railroad alone more than 41,000 skilled and experienced workers for the Armed Forces- women were employed to keep trains rolling.
Today approximately 22,000 women are serving in a wide variety of occupations- four of which are shown in the ad.
Young women proved they could fill those roles most capably.
Positions such as trainmen, ticket sellers, train passengers representatives, ushers, information and reservation personnel call for intelligence, courtesy and a high degree of efficiency.
So we’re glad to have their help in the greatest job railroads have ever been called to do, moving men and material to victory!
Rosie the Pioneer
An ARMCO ad channeled the pioneer spirit referring to a female truck driver as a “covered wagon girl:”
“I’ve got a job driving a truck when Paul went across. I’m hauling the stuff they fight with’…Her’s is the spirit of the women who reloaded the long rifles as their men fought off the Indians…the courage that helped build the kind of America we have today.”
Of course this progressive idea that women could perform all kinds of work had less to do with feminism and everything to do with patriotism.
Femininity on the Front Line
Of course some worrywarts were concerned that femininity would be a casualty of war.
Even as Rosie manned up she didn’t want to lose her feminine appeal. Keeping herself attractive was her patriotic duty. As Uncle Sam put it “Beauty is Miss Americas Badge of Courage.”
Rosie needed to remain pretty and feminine for the boys to boost their morale and give em’ something to fight for, preserving herself exactly as he remembered it.
I Enjoy Being a Girl
No woman wanted to risk losing her femininity by taking on manly jobs so reassuring ads appeared to alleviate that fear.
These ads not only promoted confidence in woman’s ability to do a man-sized job but emphasized that femininity was not incompatible with hard, high pressure work a theme that also assured the public that inhabiting masculine roles did not destroy her womanliness.
In a 1943 ad, North America Aviation introduced us to lovely Jackie Maul a former model whose job reading blueprints clearly didn’t destroy her sex appeal or womanliness. The reader is reassured: “She still loves flowers hats veils, smooth orchestras and being kissed by a boy who’s now in North Africa.”
“What ! An artist’s model building a bomber,” the headline for this ad asks incredulously.
“Sounds unlikely doesn’t it? But if you walked through the big North American plants you’d be thrilled at the way hundreds of women like those pictured here are handling big important parts of the job of making airplanes.”
“The lovely girl at the drawing board is Jackie Maul onetime model for John Powers. She is one of many career women- former secretaries singers milliners and others- whose new careers at North American. Other women are housewives-and good ones too.”
“Here you will find wives, sisters, sweethearts ( and a few widows) of men fighting for freedom.
“Today every woman can be proud of her own contribution to the winning of the war”
Rosie the Riveter Dresses For Success
A frilly frock or peek a boo hairdo had no place in the factory floor, natch. Sweater set wearing sisters were promptly sent home from the plant because curve hugging sweaters were forbidden on “moral grounds” i.e. too distracting.
Even more of a work hazard was the long peekaboo hairstyle popularized by Veronica Lake. The long tresses could easily be ensnared in machines so as a result hair was ordered tied up in turbans or bandanas. As a patriotic gesture and in solidarity to her working sisters, Miss Lake switched to an upswept due for the duration.
So Angora sweaters and silk undies were put in mothballs for the war in exchange for more utilitarian work uniform as practical and hard-working as they were.
Real Silk, a shop at home service made famous for their luxurious pre war silk stockings switched gears and offered work clothes designed for action…just not the sexual kind!. These were clothes designed to inspire morale in others.”
Underneath it All, You’re all Woman
“There’s a new woman today,” Munsingwear Underwear proudly announced in a series of ads, doing a mans job so that he may fight and help finish the war sooner. With that in mind they created a new Line of Action undies called “Fighting Trims”just for working women
Equal Pay For Equal Work
If the work demanded women do men’s work it only made sense that women should receive equal pay for equal work. It was as simple as black and white
Despite the fact that this became national policy in November 1942 when the War Labor Board issued an order allowing employees to voluntarily raise women’s wages as much as necessary to bring them in line with mens, the order never trickled down to many smaller companies and the average female production worker still made about 40% less per week than did her male counterparts.
Of course there were some things a clever girl could do to get extra dough.
According to career advice offered in ads by Sal Hepatica manufacturer of Laxatives a gal would be wise to keep regular if she wanted to stay on the ball and get a raise.
In one 1943 ad we are introduced to 2 assembly line workers – Out of Luck Lucy whose constipation woes caused our sluggish missy to miss out on a raise, and smart Polly who takes a laxative and takes home a trophy and a juicy bonus.
Like today, a working woman had to do double duty…building a plane and running a home.
The age-old question of whether a woman could truly balance a job and home was answered during the war with a resounding yes!
You betcha she could, the media crowed.
Ads regularly reassured a doubting public that pulling women out of the home to join the work force would not damage family life, congratulating the homemaker for fulfilling obligations at home and on the job. Children and hubby would still be well take care of.
These ads helped to sweep aside old prejudices gently stowing them away for the duration, only to be taken back out of mothballs at war’s end.
Next: Operation June Cleaver
With victory in sight Rosie The Riveter would be unceremoniously handed her pink slip pushed out of the work force
Copyright (©) 2015 Sally Edelstein All Rights Reserved
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