Women & Wartime Debates
Although women surely did prove their worth during World War II, it didn't stop the media from generating debates that stereotyped women. The perception of the American woman was continously challenged, despite her constant efforts. Below are a few instances:
"Can Women Handle the Jobs of Men?"
One of the most dicussed topics regarding women during World War II was whether or not they would be capable of taking on the job of a man. Aside from the more obvious debate -- whether women had the physical strength to endure the strength of a man -- other concerns were even more embedded in sexist stereotypes. The consensus of the country regarding women at that time was a woman's sensitivity, whether or not her behavior could handle the physical, mental, and emotional toll that working in a factory would entail. Although, yes, women were anatomically different than men, the conversations centered around this debate extended well beyond that mark of difference. Factories were concerned with whether or not women could handle the machinery used in the factories -- some even altered them to better suit women -- which was not necessarily a detrimental move on behalf of female workers; however, the belief that women would enter the workplace with different attitudes than men, that is, more emotional attitudes, was discussed so often that it established itself as a valid concern. Without surprise, women workers defied these ideologies and led the United States through a successful production war, one that could not have been accomplished without them.
"Women Aren't Giving Enough to the War Effort"
The gravest concern that was a constant reiteration to women were their low recruitment levels. The military and the factories set their expectated numbers so high that, even with hundreds of thousands of women joining the workforce, they were led to believe that their efforts weren't enough.
The media first came after college women. Women that were involved in higher education during the war generated a stigma of being pompous and setting their "own" expectations too high. For anyone registered in college full-time, the time commitment to enter the war was a difficult task to manage, leaving women to choose one or the other. However, whenever women decided to choose their own success over putting her own needs aside for their country, they were depicted as thinking of themselves as "too good" to help. One of the major concerns that arose in the media was that college women thought of themselves as superior to women entering the workforce or the military, finding themselves only suitable in officer positions. The result of this type of media created the "us vs. them" ideology, an attempt at pitting women against each other in order to guilt more women into recruitment.
The issue of recruitment did not stop at college women, however; even housewives were depicted as not giving enough. When one considers the life-altering shift that wives and mothers endured at the United States' entrance into WWII, it is very easy to imagine the emotional toll they had to take on. Mothers had children to care for, and it wasn't until the near end of the war that daycares were established for women workers. Until then, women with children had to make their family their first priority, and even though some mothers still did join the war effort, it could not have been done easily. Women were not only trying to maintain their homes with their husbands gone, but also their family, trying to ensure stability in any way they could. Instead of empathizing with this task, however, the media decided to make mothers feel guilty for "lagging" in the war effort. What the media was not portraying, though, was that women were not lagging at all; they were just trying to stay afloat.
This particular debate epitomizes the power of the media during dire times. It can pull at women's weaknesses to not only challenge their worth, but also challenge the masses view on their worth. It also goes to show just how badly the country needed women to enter the workplace and the military: they were willing to threaten the trust of the very people that they needed the most.
Even toward the end of the war, recruitment levels for women were still lower than the government had expected. An ongoing debate ensued as to whether or not women should have been drafted: if men were forced into the war effort, some thought women should be too. The conversation began as drafting women into the workplace, forcing them into the factories to supplement the production war that the United States had taken on, but it eventually evolved into the military as well. At one point in time, the thought almost became a reality. Toward the end of the war, the recruitment level of nurses was still so low that a bill was introduced that would amend the Selective Service Act to include the concscription of nurses. The bill was actually passed by the House in May of 1945, but before it could make its way to the Senate to be implemented, the war had ended.