The Second World War occurred between the years 1939 and 1945. It is often referred to as the “total world war” since it pitted the whole worlds against each other. Britain and her allies formed the allied forces while Germany and her allies formed the axis forces. It is the roles that women played in this war that later helped to shape their roles in the society, post the war. Their role in the war largely stemmed from their voluntary work during the First World War.
During the First World War, women in Britain and the U.S. volunteered to perform essential duties so that they could release their men to go to war (Barrow, 2010). This seemed to work since it helped the mobilization of army/solders to fight in the war. Therefore, when the Second World War was on the verge in 1939, it was largely publicized that woman should volunteer in the same manner that they did 25 years earlier (Barrow, 2010). However, the demands of war were overwhelming this time. A secret report released by Sir William Beveridge in 1940 seemed to recognize this fact. It consequently advised that there was need to recruit both men and women to be actively involved in the war itself (Barrow, 2010).
Sir William’s report subsequently led to a mass registration and recruitment of British women aged between 18 and 60 year in the spring of 1941. They were required to choose the type of job they could perform at the battle ground. These saw the women working in the battle fronts and even in enemy lines to facilitate easier fighting conditions for their male counterparts (Brayley & Ingram, 1995). Although it was categorically stated that women would not work with arms, most of them were later to work and die under heavy fire. In Britain, the recruitment of women into the army was made legal in December of 1941 under the National Service Act (II) (Barrow, 2010). It initially targeted single women aged 20-30 but later involved all single women and some married women. Soon, women were working as radio controller, air raid wardens, and rescue. Meanwhile, back at home, more women were recruited to work in the factories to cover up fir the limited labour force caused by the men’s participation in the war. They went on to cement their places in the workplace and men had a hard time displacing them after the war (Brayley & Ingram, 1995). However, it was the events during the World War II that later shaped the roles of women in the allied nations after the war (Kannan, 2010).
Never before had women been so involved in a war all over the world. In deed, when this war came to an end, the women of America and Britain were not the same again. They had stepped out of their dockets of work and were now doing what traditionally used to be done by the men. It is, therefore, safe to state that the Second World War altered the role of women in the society, bringing into being the rise of feminism gender equality movements of the 1950s (Kannan, 2010).
How the Roles Changed
Before the beginning of the war, most women in the US and Britain were expected to be, and were in deed housewives. Women had been only allowed to work outside their homes if they had no family but even then were paid smaller wages as compared to their male counterparts, even if doing the same kind of job (Brayley & Ingram, 1995). The number of women working out in the factories had been however considerably low. These women had little involvement in the matters of national governance as they were not even allowed to vote. Vying for public positions for women was almost unthought-of. There had been no women in the military before the war neither had there been any woman offering supportive services to the military (Barrow, 2010).
However, after the Second World War, the role of women far much fell into place with their participation in the war. Women who had volunteered in the war became members of the Women’s Lands Army (WLA) and the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) (Theodore, 2008),that trained women on activities that pertained to agriculture, heavy metal industries, chemical industries, ship and plane building, and even bus building. In deed, sooner than later, these industries had over thirty percent of their employees being women. This group of women even worked in the building of Railways and canals. Perhaps the most notable of their work is the building of the waterloo bridge in London (Theodore, 2008).
After the Second World War had been won, it was apparent that women had played an important role in the victory and for that reason, their role in the society was about to take a new turn. They were accorded the right to vote so as to have equal chances/opportunity to choose who they felt would lead the nations appropriately (Lewis, 2011). Their power as a voting bloke soon became apparent when, after not so long, they started electing women to the parliament. On the domestic from, the existing governments made the laws of divorce more lenient on the women and even advocated for their compensation, with substantial benefits, in case of such eventualities. At the work place, competition was stiff between the women employees who had established themselves with the men’s absence, and the men for all kinds of job.
Among the women that evolved politically and became landmark names in the U.S. and Britain playing key roles in leadership and governance were: Queen Elizabeth and her daughters; Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, the then US first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and an American-born Feminist turned Member of Parliament Nancy Astor (Barrow, 2010). These women had been active during the war acting as morale boosters and mobilizers.
Queen Elizabeth had continued to stay with her daughters at the Buckingham palace even though the Germans were heavily bombing the city of London, and providing the city residents with aid after the bombings (Harris, 2011). This provided a morale booster to the British and her fellow allied troops to soldier on and repel the attacks. Princess Elizabeth later became the new Queen (Queen Elizabeth II).
The then first lady of the United States of America Eleanor Roosevelt was an active participant in the public affaires. Her husband, President Theodore Roosevelt, was on a wheel chair and did not want to appear in public as disable. The first lady therefore travelled a lot to offer moral support to the troops and the people of the US. This she also did through a newspaper column she continued to write even at in the middle of war. The first lady also advocated for the inclusion of women and minority groups in the responsibility of winning this war.
American-born Nancy Astor was a member of parliament in Britain and a Feminist campaigner. She hosted the US troops in England unofficially, and also played a morale boosting role in her constituency. She was seen as a symbol of hope by her constituents and inspired a lot of young women in England and the US to join the feminist movement (Harris, 2011).
Other women who became actively involved in decision making in governance included: Frances Perkins, Oveta Culp Hobby, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Alice Paul. Oveta was the US secretary of labour between the years 1933 and 1945 and, during the Second World War, headed the War Department’s Women’s Interest Section and later became the director of Women’s Army Corp (WAC). Bethune was the director of the Negro Affairs Division in WAC and tirelessly advocated for the incorporation of black women into the WAC (Harris, 2011). Perhaps the boldest of them was Alice Paul. She dared to reintroduce the Equal Rights Amendment into congress session after the war was over (Lewis, 2011). This amendment had been introduced and rejected by every session of congress since the attainment of vote rights by women in 1920. Inevitably, the height of women’s involvement in the just concluded war had convinced her that congress would be more willing to pass the amendment. However, this amendment failed to pass congress until the 70s, and even then it failed to pass in the mandatory number of states.
Women’s involvement in the Second World War also brought a lot of change to the fashion world. Women involved in military lines often wore trousers or the so-called one piece ‘siren suits’. Headgears and large handbags also became the obsession of many (Lewis, 2011). These were borne out of the necessity to tack hair away and need to carry all ration books of a family respectively (Lewis, 2011). They however went on to become fashion statements all over the two nations. The need to survive at the battle ground led many female soldiers and service providers to learn how to knit their cloths. Knitted clothes were believed to be more durable. This art of knitting, however, soon after war became the obsession of many females throughout the two nations. Indeed, fashion designers inevitably took advantage of this culture to make knitted cloths and scramble for the large market. The ‘victory roll’ of hair was also widely adopted post the war. This style had been quite frequently used during the war and was argued to add considerably to a woman’s glamour. It was thought that such kind of feminine glamour caused them ad the men around them to be with a lot of morale.
Worth noting however is the great sense of social freedom that women acquired during and after the war. There was a general sense that the governments ware more preoccupied with the war rather than monitoring the citizens for misdemeanour. This provided greater opportunity for the women to encounters members of the opposite sex. The results however were devastating- there was a sudden increase in the number of people with venereal diseases and illegitimate children (Harris, 2011). The gain however was the increasingly explicit sex education that left most people better informed about their sex lives than before the war. Women discovered Birth control methods and used them to control their futures, making them able to pursue their goals in life without the hindrances of getting a baby. This has increasingly enabled women to effectively compete with men in jobs and sectors formerly reserved only for the latter.
However, critics of this topic of the World War II and the change of the role of women argue that it did not at all change the role of women. They argue that women had been trained to perform industrial and agricultural duties merely to allow men to participate in the war. The result of the end of the war, they argue, was the return to the status quo, with women going back to being housewives and the men resuming their industrial and agricultural duties. What actually caused the change in the roles of women in the society in the US and the UK, among other nations, was the Feminism Movement.
The Feminism Movement
This was a movement by women in 1950s and 60s advocating for equal opportunities at the workplace, including payment, with the male counterparts. This movement swept across the continents of Europe and America faster than was widely expected by the political elites. There is a general agreement that though the women leading these movements were of a younger generation, the fuel that fuelled that spread was those women that had done the ‘men’s job’ at the Second World War. This augmented by the emergence of such works as The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and the development of birth control pills, allowed women to alter their social roles in the society.
This allowed women more authority and autonomy and helped them to enhance their self-esteem. This farther caused them to focus more on being in control of their lives and their capacities. The movements therefore inevitably evolved from their social settings as was the case in the 60s to target economic changes looking at the situations of women at the workplace. These alterations ensured that women were no longer content with sitting at home all day cooking or cleaning, and caring for the children-they wanted to get out and work.
Traditionally, women had been confined to the roles of housewives and taking care of crops at home gardens. If there ever was a situation they got entirely involved, it must be in the Second World War. It is worth noting however that despite their immense participation and contribution, they wee still not considered as equal participants. This is evident by the denial by their male counterparts for the females to use arms even in situations where they were working with the arms (like the anti-aircraft crew) (Lewis, 2011). Later, after the war is over, the unionised organisations at the workplaces advocates for the men to reclaim their previous occupations, subsequently displacing a huge number of women who had been employed to cover the vacant positions. This goes along way to show that despite their massive contribution at the war, people’s perception about women have not changed much.
The women are therefore forced to go back to their traditional chores and stay low. Such was the case until the launch of the Women Movements (Commonly referred to as the Feminine Movements). With the launch of these movements, women who had vehemently participated in the Second World War found a platform to voice their sentiments. These strong sentiments were coupled with the zeal of women of younger generation, making the movements unstoppable fires. It was indeed these feminine movements, influenced by the experiences of the World War II that caused major alterations in the socio-economic status of women in America and Britain.