Women in the Workplace After WWII


To understand how the position of women in the workplace changed after World War II was over, it is necessary to understand what conditions there were before the end of this war. During the war, various positions, both in the industrial sector (at plants and factories) and in offices and bureaus were unoccupied because the majority of men who used to work there were recruited as soldiers. The war has provided women with the opportunity to take places of recruited workers, including positions that were previously seen as “for men only” (such as attorneys, engineers, etc.). The rate of employed women rose, and many of them were (for the first time) able to receive a better position. A misconception here could be that administration in these offices and bureaus considered women as employees equal to men and therefore hired them; the reality was that the offices had to hire women due to workforce shortage.

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While women were hired to work at positions that required education and skill, they could not stay at these firms later, after the end of the war, as men returned from the front and firms preferred to hire them (Bowman 6). Furthermore, women rarely were made partners during that time, although they were often employed as associates. The overall perception of women was as of substitute workforce that was less skilled than male employees, although in the time of need could replace them to some degree. This anthology aims to demonstrate that although in the post World War II era, women were given opportunities to obtain positions equal to men to some degree, they were still not perceived as equal employees, and the overall perception of a woman as a skillful employee remained unpopular and not widespread. The most important thing to tackle in the paper is the analysis of the attitudes expressed by men towards female workers and track the reasons why the former considered it viable to utter such views.

Common Misperceptions

A common misperception revolves around women’s role in the workplace and the household in the post World War II era. As some of the women were able to obtain positions equal to men’s, it might be assumed that the gender gap in professions previously occupied by men changed. However, most of the women (if not all of them), who was working at well-paid positions during the war, were offered lower wages and simpler, less skilled jobs upon men’s returning to plants and firms. Furthermore, even women with a degree in law were not hired for the well-paid positions before and after the war, but only during it. The issue of women’s role in the workplace after WW II has been the subject of investigation for many scholars. One of the most noted investigators of this problem is Cynthia Grant Bowman, a professor of law at the Cornell Law School. She has written several books and many scholarly articles on such subjects as feminist jurisprudence, domestic violence, and women and family law (“Cynthia Grant Bowman”).

Bowman has dedicated many scholarly works to the role of females in the legal profession, which makes her opinion on the issue of women’s role in the workplace post-WW II an important constituent of the analysis of this issue. In her article “Women in the Legal Profession from the 1920s to the 1970s: What Can We Learn from Their Experience about Law and Social Change,” Bowman points out that one of the large firms, when facing the shortage of attorneys, discovered that two women lawyers were employed by it but worked at such positions as a legal assistant or a secretary (6). While these women were promoted to attorneys during the war, they became assistants again when male employees returned from the war and remained to be assistants since that time.

Additional attention should be paid to the education of future female employees. While the majority of law schools accepted women during wartime, one of them (Harvard) did not enroll any female students in the law school (Bowman 7). It is reported that the president of Harvard said during that time: “[It’s] [n]ot as bad as we thought…. We have 75 students, and we haven’t had to admit any women” (Bowman 7). As can be seen, despite the open positions for women, they were mostly seen as temporary workers.

However, it is important to remember that not only men but also some of the women thought that the discrimination of women was their fault. For example, Soia Mentschikoff, the first female lecturer at Harvard, “attributed women’s delay in making partner to their defeatist attitudes” (Bowman 5). Thus, it would be incorrect to believe that women were discriminated against by men only, as those few women who also had well-paid positions contributed to the diminishing view of women.

Perception of Women in the Workplace

An excellent example of how employed women were treated and perceived in the 1940s and the 1950s is the Guide to Hiring Women, a short film that was shown in cinemas before the presentation of the main movie. In the video, the head of the plant explains to the (male) worker that industrial worksites are an entirely new world for women and that they “are neither naturally familiar with mechanical principles nor machines” (“1940’s Guide to Hiring Women”). The man emphasizes how important it is to explain women the working process in every detail and present it in simple steps that they can follow. His explanation is patronizing and sometimes explicitly sexist, as women are presented as individuals incapable of following complex instructions at the plant.

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An important question that we need to ask is the following: why were women perceived as thoughtless employees who were believed to be incapable of handling operational processes? There are several points of view on this matter. First, the American Dream affected the perception of life among younger families: a happy family consisted of a successful husband, a caring housewife, and a couple of talented children. The prosperity of the 1920s, which arose after World War I, was translated by parents of the 1940s generation as the ideal picture.

Women’s struggle in the workplace during this period has attracted the attention not only of notable professors such as Cynthia Bowman. Young scholars who are making their first steps in the investigation of historical processes are also interested in these issues. Corinne Fox, who is a recent alum of the American Military University, dedicated her master’s degree to the political and legal processes involving women in the 19th century, giving a particular priority to the never letters between a Civil War General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his wife Fannie (Fox 36). In her article “American Women in the 1950s: The Years Between the War and Liberation,” Fox analyzes the problems encountered by females in the 1950s. After the end of World War II, Fox claims, many men and women were eager to return to the standard gender-oriented division of labor and responsibilities, believing that it would help them build a happy household (30).

Another reason why women were perceived as unreliable workers were the threat to the patriarchal perception of males as breadwinners. As long as women remained at lower, less paid positions, those who returned from the war were confident that their job would be restored and they could continue being the breadwinner in their family (Fox 33). An interesting point is made by the head of the plant in the mentioned 1940s short film, which reflects how women’s qualification for certain types of work was seen: “women don’t mind routine repetitive work and they are particularly good at work that requires high finger dexterity or an unusual sense of accuracy” (“1940’s Guide to Hiring Women”). As can be seen, the common belief was that women were only good for low-skilled, repetitive work that did not demand a creative or thoughtful approach.

Women’s Liberation or Further Discrimination?

While it is true that the 1940s, due to the wartime, provided women with career opportunities, as soon as the war had ended, women returned to their roles of homemakers and mothers. Fox states that historians are not ready to acknowledge that the rate of employed women after World War II continued to increase, as many of them were unable to advance their careers since the household was their primary responsibility (34). Many women abandoned their well-paid positions during the postwar era because their presence in the public space was unwelcome, and lower wages and sexism at the workplace only interfered with their ability to fight for economic freedom.

A good example of a sexist approach perceived as a norm is demonstrated in the Guide to Hiring Women, where the male employee teaches the female employee how to wear a safety cap. Two variants of approaching the woman are shown: a stricter one and a friendly one. The head of the plan emphasizes that the second approach is the preferred one. An interesting point that the woman makes in this video is that she did not think about how safety caps were designed to protect her hair from the drill chuck (“1940’s Guide to Hiring Women”). The video has at least two messages: women might not be aware of the importance of workplace safety and that a patronizing approach is better than an equal one.

Thus, it is difficult to state whether career opportunities in the postwar era were indeed opportunities, as due to the sexist, discriminatory, and patronizing approaches women in the workplace were forced to choose housework and family care. Although the postwar era is perceived by some historians and gender researchers as the time when women’s awareness of their liberation increased, discrimination of women remained, and in some ways was even more gender-biased compared to the 1930s. Fox points out that during the Great Depression, women were encouraged to earn money for the family, as long as they had lower wages compared to men (31). At the same time, Bowman argues that employed women were frowned upon because they were taking positions that men who had to support their families could apply for (4). As can be seen, the perception of women in the workplace changed depending on economic issues that the USA experienced, social perceptions, and shifts in society as a whole.

The situation did not change much in the 1950s since firms were still reluctant to hire women. Such reluctance was explained by the fact that clients of law firms, for example, did not want female lawyers to represent them (Bowman 8). The discrimination went beyond the hiring process; women lawyers were asked to lunch and dine in a separate room, where there were no male lawyers, as well as use separate entrances in some cases (Bowman 9). Women were unlikely to specialize in business law as well, but this tendency was presented as “their choice” rather than discrimination.

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The anthology aims to shed light on issues surrounding workplace discrimination of women during the postwar era. An important notion here would be that the discrimination was not only related to lower wages or sexist approaches but also included physical segregation and questioning of the mental and cognitive abilities of female employees. Although the general belief is that with the advancement of progress, women’s rights also improved, it might be incorrect, as this area was profoundly affected by transformations and changes in public space and the society. They were not always positive or promising to women. Furthermore, societal perceptions of women could also be even more influential than policies, as they affected women’s self-image and self-perception, emphasizing their role that depended on economic and social processes in the state. The anthology’s purpose is to demonstrate how women’s working value changed in the postwar era.

Works Cited

Bowman, Cynthia Grant. “Women in the Legal Profession from the 1920s to the 1970s: What Can We Learn from Their Experience about Law and Social Change.” Maine Law Review, vol. 61, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1-26.

“Cynthia Grant Bowman.” Cornell Law School, n.d., Web.

Fox, Corinne. “American Women in the 1950s: The Years Between the War and Liberation.” Saber and Scroll, vol. 2, no. 3, 2013, pp. 30-36.

“1940’s Guide to Hiring Women.” YouTube, uploaded by Glamour Daze. 2013, Web.

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