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The Setting

Many people living today who lived during World War II do not remember the scale of the war because they were too young at the time. Those who fought and were adults at the time sure do. Few remember the number of troops involved or the fatalities for U.S. military or for the world overall. Most people do not recall the role that women played in the war. This article will discuss the role of women prior to and during the war effort and some of the workplace and safety issues women faced in their war support roles.

One might use the Afghanistan War which has continued for more than 10 years as a point of reference. At any time during the Afghanistan conflict for the U.S., the maximum number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was 11,000 to 15,000. To date the deaths of U.S. soldiers has passed 2,400.

During WWII as U.S. participation increased, the number of people in the military increased. There were over 334,000 military involved in 1939. That number increased rapidly after the United States entered the war and declared war on Germany and Japan. Before the conflict ended in 1945, there were more than 12,000,000 personnel in the Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard. More than 11,000,000 were drafted into service. No more than 3% of the troops were women, who were volunteers and did not participate in combat roles.

Casualties were unbelievable for U.S. military and the military of other countries involved in the war. More than 400,000 U.S. troops died and nearly 700,000 were wounded. Estimates of military and civilian casualties worldwide during WWII range from 60,000,000 to 100,000,000. The losses are almost unfathomable!

Most of the able bodied young men were taken from the civilian population in the U.S. Many senior workers remained at work, but jobs shifted. There was a huge shift from a civilian economy and manufacturing focused on consumer goods to one dedicated to military production. Even automobile production stopped for several years. Where could the U.S. get employees to fill this need for workers?

Women’s Employment During WWI

In 1914 the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that among industries important to WWI about 6.5% of the workers were women. By 1916 that had increased to about 7.7%.

During the war, as the number of available men employees decreased as a result of two drafts. By the end of the second draft, 13% of all production employees were women. These data do not include women’s employment in domestic work, such as housekeeping, child care, laundry, education, clerical, etc.

The role of women changed considerably because of the workers needed to support the war. It was fairly easy for employers to replace men in clerical positions, sales and garment and textile work. However, there were many women who began to work with machines and in industrial jobs, especially those involving smaller machines in many manufacturing industries.

Some women were allowed to join the military and wear uniforms. During WWI there were over 21,000 female Army nurses and 1,400 Navy nurses and 13,000 in enlisted work on active duty with the same ranks and pay as men who went off to battle zones.

While women’s pay before the war was significantly lower than that for men, often half or less of men’s pay, the positions during the war did change the pay to some degree.

During WWI there was a major shift in the kinds of products manufactured. For example, producers of furniture, typewriters, fishing tackle, and sporting goods by necessity changed to support manufacturing of the more than one hundred thousand separate items in the War Department’s ordnance catalogue of supplies.

From a safety perspective, women affected change in some work conditions. An example involved grinding operations that produced considerable dust. Prior to the war, manufacturers gave attention to protecting workers from accidents and related injures from the machines by providing guards but gave little attention to the illnesses that could result from inhaling the dust. In part, early worker’s compensation laws provided compensation for injuries, but often excluded work-related illnesses. When women began employment in the same roles, the employers and regulators began to pay attention to the illnesses faced by women workers and not just to injuries that may result from the work. As a result, merely having to hire women employees increased the awareness for job-related illness that lead to the loss of effective and productive workers.

Overall, WWI opened the door to many new roles for women.

Women’s Employment 1920 to 1940

The expansion of women in the workplace during WWI influenced government action at state and national levels. For example, Public Law No 250 of June 5, 1920 established the Women’s Bureau within the Department of Labor. The law gave the agency the responsibility to “formulate standards and policies which shall promote the welfare of wage-earning women, improve their working conditions, increase their efficiency, and advance their opportunities for profitable employment.” In part, this resulted from a growing social effort to expand the role of women. This social effort also led to the right to vote.

Prior to the Women’s Bureau, an organization called Women in Industry Service published in 1918 the first standards fot the employment of women in industry. The Women’s Bureau later published such a standard. The standard addressed the following:

  • Hours of Labor
    • Limited work to 8 hours, half days on Saturday, required rest periods and time for meals, prohibited work between midnight and 6 am.
  • Wages
    • Wages to be based on occupation, not on sex or race, minimum wage covering the cost of living for dependents, not merely the worker.
  • Working Conditions
    • Comfort and sanitation including cleanliness, lighting, ventilation, drinking water, rest rooms, washing facilities, water fountains, management of standing and sitting and height of machines or work tables (ergonomics?), etc.
    • Safety from risk of machines, fire, dust, fumes and other hazards.
    • Removal of health hazards.
    • Prohibited occupations are those proven to be more injurious to women than to men.
  • No work to be done in rooms intended for living and sleeping.
  • Employment Management
    • Hiring, separations, and determination of work conditions.
    • Including women in supervisory positions where women are employed.
    • Ability to choose an occupation.

The Women’s Bureau studied where women were actually employed. The agency studied industrial accidents for women and for both men and women to identify what risks women faced during employment. While these reports provide a lot of data and analysis, the fact that states providing the data lacked standardization in reporting and in employment and compensation laws made it difficult to draw conclusions and offer recommendation unique to women. Overall, the studies identified the continuing need to improve workplace safety for both women and men.

During the period between WWI and WWII, there continued to be a growth among women as a portion of the total work force. The involvement of women helped to improve workplace safety and health conditions.

Women’s Employment in WWII

Prior to WWII, women typically found their place in the home or in clerical, educational, domestic or similar roles. Most households relied on a single breadwinner, most often the male in the household. That changed drastically with WWII.

During WWII, the female labor force grew by 50 percent, an increase of 6.5 million. Nearly 19,000,000 women held jobs during WWII. By 1945, women comprised 36.1 percent of the labor force. The portion of married women working outside the home increased from 13.9 to 22.5 percent. Female employment in defense industries grew by 462 percent.

One study suggested that by 1944 women were able to perform 80% of the jobs ordinarily done by men.

Who Was Rosie the Riveter?

Rosie the Riveter was a fictitious character who became a symbol for the women who joined the U.S. workforce in support of WWII.

At first, Rosie the Riveter was a song that gained much attention as the war effort scaled up. Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote the song in 1942 that was issued by the Paramount Music Corporation of New York and released in 1943. Several artists recorded the song. One of the more popular versions was that sung by the Four Vagabonds.

Then Rosie the Riveter became an image used in support of women in WWII. The most famous poster image was drawn by J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee. This image included the slogan “We Can Do It!”

Rosie The Riveter by J. Howard Miller.

Rosie The Riveter by J. Howard Miller.

Another famous image was that drawn by Norman Rockwell for the cover of the May 29, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Many other illustrations capitalized on these initial images of women workers doing their part for the war effort on the home front.

Rosie The Riveter by Norman Rockwell

Rosie The Riveter by Norman Rockwell

A few details in the Rockwell illustration worth noting:

  • She’s wearing overalls. Women didn’t wear pants in public much before World War II; but during the war it became common to see women on the way to and from work in overalls or trousers.
  • She’s wearing loafers. Only after July 1943 were safety shoes with metal toes produced for women. There had been no need to manufacture these shoes in women’s sizes before because women didn’t customarily work in dangerous jobs where such shoes were needed. Most women wore their own shoes.

Song: Rosie the Riveter by Paramount Music Corporation, NY, 1942.

Rosie the Riveter

While other girls attend their fav’rite cocktail bar
Sipping Martinis, munching caviar
There’s a girl who’s really putting them to shame
Rosie is her name

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history,
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter

Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage
That little frail can do more than a male will do
Rosie the Riveter

Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie
Charlie, he’s a Marine
Rosie is protecting Charlie
Working overtime on the
riveting machine

When they gave her a production “E”
She was as proud as a girl could be
There’s something true about
Red, white, and blue about
Rosie the Riveter

Everyone stops to admire the scene
Rosie at work on the B-Nineteen
She’s never twittery, nervous or jittery
Rosie the Riveter

What if she’s smeared full of
oil and grease
Doing her bit for the old Lendlease
She keeps the gang around
They love to hang around
Rosie the Riveter

Rosie buys a lot of war bonds
That girl really has sense
Wishes she could purchase
more bonds

Putting all her cash into national defense
Senator Jones who is “in the know”
Shouted these words on the radio
Berlin will hear about
Moscow will cheer about
Rosie the Riveter!

(Hear the song sung by the Four Vagabonds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AE2z_N1fM5E

Beside the increase in women employees in WWII and the changes in dress, how did women impact safety and work environments? Here are a couple of quotes from a Boeing historical article:

Boeing created a transportation department that organized ride sharing and busing. The company assisted working moms in locating daycare and provided work shifts that would allow mothers to be at home during the day. Boeing also added more breaks and more access to nutritional meals by building a new cafeteria. An extensive recreation program was put into place that helped all employees cope with the stress of work and the war.

Another hurdle was appropriate dress for manufacturing work. Safety and appearance were top issues, and many companies introduced stylish uniforms that were functionally designed for work in the factories. Boeing, for example, worked with a major department store in Seattle to develop working fashions.

Another safety factor that came into play involved hair styles. There was the potential for long hair to get caught in belts, rotating machinery and other conditions in the workplace. The promotional effort of one (Veronica Lake) or more movie stars led to the Victory Roll and variations of it. The style kept the hair wound tight mainly toward the back of the head to provide a safer hair style.

Women kept their hair clean and usually brushed their hair twice a day. Like other commodities, shampoo became scarce during WWII and women had to steam their hair over a pot of hot water and then rub the dirt and oil off with a towel. Hair care was time consuming. Many women relied on beauty parlors to maintain their hair. When women working in factories started taking time off work to take care of their hair, some employers created beauty salons within the factories to reduce the time women were away from work and improve employee morale.

Remembering Rosie The Riveter

Today there is a park in Richmond, California devoted to Rosie the Riveter and the history of women working on the home front. The National Park Service operates the facility.

There is an American Rosie the Riveter Association in Alabama. Founded in 1998 by a former Rosie the Riveter, the organization is devoted to capturing the stories of many women who worked in the WWII effort, cataloging the individuals who served and creating a legacy for the families and descendants of these women.

There are other organizations recognizing the historical significance of Rosie the Rivet and the dedication of women doing their part in support of the fighting men and women in WWII.





  • See footnotes with text.


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