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.
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.