Women, Work, and the War That Changed Both

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In 1942, on the front edge of World War II, the US government launched an emotional advertising campaign to encourage all Americans to contribute to the war effort. As debt piled up to build factories, buy materials, and support soldiers, the newly created US Office of War Information began its call to action. Colorful poster art urged citizens to buy war bonds, conserve resources, and join the military.

A new exhibit at the Cleveland Fed, Propaganda and Patriotism: The Art of Financing America's Wars, shares the powerful stories and images of America's war bonds and American citizens' role in supporting the war effort.

But what started out as a propaganda campaign soon foretold permanent changes in our society. As 10 million men vacated factory, shipyard, and steel jobs to fight, and as US factories were racing to match the Axis powers’ stockpiles of war material, women were left to fill the gap. This need to fill temporary labor shortages provided the foundation for a key demographic shift in our nation’s labor force that still has implications today.

From 1940 to 1945, the share of women in the US workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent. By 1945, nearly one out of every four married women was working outside the home, many of them making battleships and bombers, parachutes and ammunition. But when the war ended so did the massive need for women in the workforce. Military men had been promised they would have their jobs back when they returned home, and, accordingly, when they returned, women were unceremoniously laid off.

Some women went back to their domestic duties, but things had clearly changed. Poster images of women in the workplace contributed to a shift in attitudes—a working woman no longer seemed odd; it was the norm, even patriotic.

Meanwhile, as views changed, a great technological revolution further propelled women into the labor force. A byproduct of the war effort, a rise in the technology of household durables like washing machines and vacuums, drastically reduced the time it took women to keep up their households. With labor-intensive chores like laundry now automated, and with the gradually falling price of the technology, it was much more realistic for women to participate in the labor force.

With the nation’s more modern view of women’s roles and with women’s freedom from manual chores, women’s participation in the labor force grew substantially. Since the late 1940s, the rate of female labor force participation has been increasing—from about 32 percent then to about 58 percent in 2011. In fact, this trend has often been cited as one of the most important in US labor markets. The larger the labor force, the larger an economy’s productive capacity. Not only are there more goods and services, but there are more people with paychecks to buy those goods and services—a virtuous circle of economic growth.

In the 1970s, the men's participation rate, which had always been on an upward track, began to decline slightly. Yet the rapid increase in women’s participation more than offset this decline; in fact, the whole rate rose. A similar situation is happening today. Women with children now make up a much larger share of the workforce than they did 30 years ago, and a larger share of women are working full time and year-round. And as in the ‘70s, the trend in men’s labor force participation has again been declining.

The modern job market requires high skills and education levels. Women’s higher educational attainment helps explain their continued strong presence in the labor force. Among women ages 25 to 64 who are in the labor force, the proportion with a college degree roughly tripled from 1970 to 2011. Higher education means higher employability.

Women have come a long way since Rosie the Riveter, the poster girl who represented the millions of American women who joined the workforce during World War II. By making women’s role in the workforce seem natural, war poster art did America’s economy a favor.

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