What Happened to Rosie?

An excerpt from a government report on the status of women workers after World War II.

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There are certain distinct difficulties that face women in particular in the redistribution of the labor force in the postwar period. Chief among these difficulties, bearing with special force on women, is the frequent lack of openings for many workers at the levels of skill developed during the war. Some women were not in the labor force before the war. Others have developed higher skills during the war period than before. Because they are new entrants to the labor force or to occupations of certain skills, many of these women do not have prior seniority in the jobs they hold when lay-offs occur. Few of them are entitled to the job preferences afforded veterans. When jobs of the skill levels women have developed in war work are no longer available, the tendency is to refer them back to their earlier types of jobs, which many of them no longer desire. In a sample study made in three cities by the U.S. Employment Service, it was found that 40 to 61 percent of the openings for women were clerical, sales, or service jobs, but only 15 to 18 percent of the women claimants had last worked in these fields. Reports from the field indicate that women do not desire to return, not only to service occupations, but in some instances to manufacturing occupations in which they were formerly engaged. For example, some localities report shortages of women workers in garment and hosiery factories owing to women’s lack of desire to return to such jobs. Women face unique challenges in finding work in the post-war period.
Women obtained new and better skills through their war work, but few jobs requiring these skills are available to women.
Women did not have the same seniority as men who started this work before the war. Because of this, they are first to lose their jobs and are the last to be hired for new jobs.
When women cannot obtain high-skill jobs, they are encouraged to return to the kinds of jobs they did before the war. But women do not want to go back those jobs.
A study showed that 40 to 61 percent of openings for women are in clerical, sales, and service industries. But only 15 to 18 percent of women want these jobs.
Overall, women do not want to return to their old jobs. They want to get better jobs and use the skills they gained during the war.
The jobs available for women tend to pay lower basic rates than did their wartime work. Meanwhile the elimination of overtime hours and overtime pay have cut amounts in pay envelopes, making women all the more hesitant to accept new jobs where basic rates are lower than they have been receiving. This tends also to keep women longer unemployed and to throw more women for longer periods on unemployment compensation. . . Post-war jobs for women pay less than their wartime jobs. Post-war jobs also offer less overtime pay. Women know they will make less money and are hesitant to accept low-paying jobs.
Women are willing to wait longer for a better paying job. This results in women collecting unemployment funds for longer periods of time.
Furthermore, the increased number of older women in the labor force, and the tendency for hiring specifications in some types of clerical and manufacturing work to be placed at relatively low age ranges – facts that already have been discussed – indicate that when the labor market eases a greater number of women than before the war may experience difficulties in obtaining jobs owing to their ages. The average age of women workers increased during the war, but many jobs available to women favor younger workers. This creates an imbalance in the labor market.

United States. Women’s Bureau and Pidgeon, Mary Elizabeth. Employment of Women in the Early Postwar Period: With Background of Prewar and War Data : Women’s Bureau Bulletin, No. 211 (Washington: Govt. Print. Off., 1946).

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The impact of war work on post-war America was complicated. On the one hand, as war-time industries downsized and factories welcomed their former male employees back as they returned from the war, women lost their jobs in large numbers. While some women willingly returned to their pre-war lives in the home, others did not. In 1945, for example, women workers at a Ford Motor Company plant in Michigan publicly protested when the company fired them in exchange for less experienced male workers. Several hundred were able to keep their jobs thanks to the protest, but their demands for full equality with men were not entirely realized.

On the other hand, the percentage of women in the workforce steadily increased in the second half of the 1940s. Although society encouraged and expected women to stay in the home, many women still needed to work out of economic necessity. In addition, more married middle class women chose to work. As families grew and aspired to a more comfortable lifestyle, they valued the benefits of a two-income family. Women’s post-war jobs were quite different from those available during wartime. Women who were highly skilled riveters, welders, and machinists were no longer welcome in factories. Such work returned to the realm of men. But traditional women’s fields like teaching, nursing, sales, and office work welcomed workers at unprecedented levels.

More women in the workforce did not mean more gender equality. Women’s post-war wages were substantially lower than men’s, and Congress did not pass equal pay legislation for several more decades (and even then it was not effective, given job segregation by gender). Although many families relied on two incomes, husbands remained the primary breadwinners. A wife’s income was meant to supplement the family budget. This inequality ensured that the traditional ideas of male superiority and gender-divided workplaces continued, even in a world of increasing numbers of female workers.

About the Document

This is an excerpt from a report titled Employment of Women in the Early Postwar Period. It was published by the Women’s Bureau in the United States Department of Labor in 1946. The Director of the Women’s Bureau at that time was Frieda Miller. Frieda was a labor activist who spent most of her career fighting for equal pay and equal rights for women workers. She was particularly concerned about the transition women workers were forced to make in the post-war period. This report reflects some of the concerns she and her colleagues considered most pressing.


  • basic rate: A person’s standard salary or wage.
  • hiring specifications: The qualifications or requirements employers expect in potential employees.
  • overtime: Working hours that go beyond a person’s regular schedule.
  • seniority: A privileged position earned by working at a place longer than other employees.
  • U.S. Employment Service: An agency of the federal government that oversees unemployment programs and employment assistance programs.
  • veterans: Former soldiers.
  • Women’s Bureau: A division of the Department of Labor that focused on women workers.

Discussion Questions

  • What is the title of this report? Why do you think the Women’s Bureau published a report on this topic?
  • What challenges did women workers face as they tried to find post-war jobs?
  • What is the importance of seniority in the workplace? How did this compact impact women workers after the war?
  • What kinds of jobs did women want after the war? What kind of jobs were available?
  • Based on the above questions, what do you think government officials were worried about as they supported women workers?
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