William Chafe is a Professor of History at Duke University.
He is the author of The Road to Equality: American Women since 1962; Never Stop Running: Allard Lowenstein and the Struggle to Save American Liberalism; and The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic and Political Role 1920-1970.
New River Media Interview with: William Chafe Professor of History, Duke University
QUESTION: How would you characterize the importance of the movement of women into the workforce during World War II?
WILLIAM CHAFE: I think the movement of women into the workforce in World War II is important for two reasons. First of all, the dramatic impact it had at the very movement it was happening: a huge transformation, 75 percent increase in the number of women at work. But also, more importantly in terms of the foundation it laid for future developments and the involvement of especially middle class and middle aged married women in the workforce. That became, really, a critical dimension of the growing expansion of the female labor force from World War II all the way through to the current days. There had been a steady movement among woman workers from the turn of the century forward, although it had been primarily, among young women, and single women, and poor women. It was generally expected that once you were married and once you achieved a family, it was in fact verboten, not something which was really permissible for a married woman worker to be out of the home. And so I think the critical change was really taking place in terms of the growth of female labor, but it was not something which extended primarily to married women or to middle aged women or to middle class women. During the 1930s, there had been, interestingly enough, a considerable expansion of the female labor force. This was largely because, of course, jobs were so desperately sought after - people needed money wherever they could find it. And even though women were not taking men's jobs, they were joining the labor force.
QUESTION: What was the position of women working in the Depression?
WILLIAM CHAFE: One of the paradoxes of women at work in almost any decade is the contradictions that exist, between attitude on the one hand and behavior on the other. During the Depression, there was a tremendous campaign against women working. They were basically attacked as being pin money workers, only getting jobs in order to afford frivolities, and there was a terribly intensive campaign against married women working. For example, in about 75 percent of all school districts, if a woman teacher became married, she was fired. She could not hold her job. There was an enacted federal legislation, Section 213 of the Federal employment law, which said that two spouses could not work for the Civil Service, which was really clearly intended at women, not men. And so there was this enormous campaign - congressmen making statements all over the place about what a tragedy it was that women were taking jobs away from men. So that's the prevailing cultural norm which existed. On the other hand, women are taking jobs in growing numbers during the Depression because everyone desperately needs to find whatever income they can in order to help the family to survive. And so there is a, ironically, an increase, even among married women workers during the Depression, and that makes a significant difference, and does in some ways lay a foundation for what happens during World War II. But these are, again, primarily these are not middle class, they're not middle aged, they're not married woman overall. They're mostly young and single women.
QUESTION: Given where women had come to, when the war began, were women welcomed into the workforce with open arms?
WILLIAM CHAFE: There was a really interesting transition point at the beginning of the war between attitudes towards women not really being able to handle these jobs and the recognition that somehow you had to be able to replace the men who were going off to war. And there was probably a twelve to eighteen month period where there's a transition in which in a sense the public governmental propaganda had changed and there was a desire to incorporate more and more women into these jobs, recruit them into the labor force, do ads that were going to encourage them to go to work. And [it was a] problem to change the mind set of the American people so that in fact they would be welcomed - not just the American people but employers, training processes and mechanisms for getting people assimilated into the job force. There was so much desperate need for women to be in the labor force, and there was so much official sanction by direct contrast to what had happened five years earlier when there had been this incredible government opposition to women working. Now the government had basically changed its position completely, and said what we said you couldn't do five years ago, we now desperately need you to do because it's the patriotic thing to do.
QUESTION: How significant was women's participation in the defense jobs during the war?
WILLIAM CHAFE: Women defense workers played a critically important role in munitions factories. Women who were in these positions were doing dramatically different kinds of jobs, and they were a very critical part, component of the war industry. The interesting thing is, of course, they were presented not only for doing revolutionary new kinds of work, but in a way as people who were doing traditional kinds of work but in a new setting. So that the women who were helping to sew the wings of airplanes were being portrayed as simply bringing to a larger environment the kinds of sewing they would ordinarily be doing in their home. Those who were cutting out pieces of aluminum to put in munitions were compared to women who were cutting out cookie molds to bake their cookies. So there was this really interesting way in which the government in effect took up the imagery and the motif of domesticity in order to help make more palatable and acceptable the notion that women were doing these different kinds of jobs. This was really for three purposes, I think. One, it was to suggest that women were not leaving behind their traditional femininity. It was also a way of facilitating or easing the recruitment of women into these jobs. And third, and most ironically, there was a desire to create a sense that women were not going to forget their traditional roles, they could go back to those roles once the war had ended.
QUESTION: What was the most significant change in the kinds of women who entered the workforce, and how did this contrast with working women previously?
WILLIAM CHAFE: During World War II, what was really significant was the question of who worked. In 1940, most women workers in the labor force were young, and they were single, and they were poor. It became increasingly impossible to have the personnel to run the war unless you went out to a different constituency. And so women were being recruited now who were married. Many of them were over 30. And some of them are mothers. And increasingly who are middle class. And so what you have is this kind of interesting sense of solidarity among women across class and racial lines, going to rescue the war effort as men go off to war. And so there's a very different kind of composition, and that's why more than 60 percent of women who go to work during the war are over thirty; 75 percent of them are married women. And basically you have a change, which is ultimately very transformative in terms of the expectations that women have.
QUESTION: We've heard quite a bit about Rosie the Riveter. How typical was she of women during World War II?
WILLIAM CHAFE: Rosie is not all women workers during World War II. But Rosie the Riveter is someone who typifies the energy, the courage, the indomitable spirit of the women who go to work. Many of these women are going to work in government offices. Mainly they're going to work in traditionally women's jobs as clerical workers, but they are doing things which they have not done before because they are different women than have been doing these things before. And they are certainly taking many more factory jobs. The kinds of jobs that are involved, automobile factories, for example, get transformed to factories that are making tanks and making other military munitions, and so women are doing those jobs. They're getting involved in making tires, in a whole variety of things that women have not in the past been doing.
QUESTION: Were women treated equally on the job, in the types of jobs they were given and pay levels they reached, or was it more a separate and unequal?
WILLIAM CHAFE: Women who were joining the labor force in World War II, taking industrial jobs, for example, still had to deal with male prejudice. They had to deal with sexual harassment. They had to deal with men who just basically not only made pejorative or negative remarks about them, but also took liberties with them, and this was a constant problem. On the other hand, there was solidarity in numbers. There was the fact that there existed a National War Labor Board to whom one could appeal. In many of these areas there were unions that were dominated by men, certainly, but nevertheless trying to seek to protect the workers and the jobs because they expected men to come back into those jobs. And so there were some places to go to get some kind of protection, but it was by no means a circumstance in which women suddenly enjoyed the experience of being for the first time in their lives treated as equals, because they were not treated as equals. The pay issue, the issue of equal pay during the war, is really an important one, because although the National War Labor Board mandated equal pay for equal work, there probably never was any kind of widespread acceptance or enforcement of that provision. So women were making more money than they ever made before, and one of the reasons they were doing that was because the unions wanted to make sure those jobs were still well-paid. But they were not being paid, or treated, or given the same opportunities as men would have been given in those same jobs.
QUESTION: What happened to working women at the end of the war?
WILLIAM CHAFE: You know, one of the fascinating things that happened during the war is that women are taking jobs with the expectation that they are going to serve during the war and then they're going to go back home. Interesting things happened. They found they enjoyed being on the job. They enjoyed being with their work mates. They enjoyed the money. They enjoy earning and they want to stay on the job. By the end of the war, 80 percent of the women who have taken jobs during the way say we don't want to go home, we want to stay in this job. Now, that's happening at the same time as there's this extraordinary public concern about what happens when all the men return home? And, of course, veterans have preference in terms of getting back the jobs that they once held. And you've got this clash, this contradiction of cultural desires and values and expectations. Because there is so much of an emphasis on demobilization, hundreds of thousands of jobs that had been war industry-related are lost. Therefore, hundreds of thousands of women go back to the home, or they take other jobs that are not war industry jobs. But there is a significant decline in the number of women workers, and that's both a function of the transition to a peace time economy, and the men returning to the jobs, and the propaganda that's very much pervasive about women returning to the home. Well, after the dip that happened at the end of the war, by 1947 women are going back into the labor force. They're not going back into those high-paying war industry jobs, but they are going back and doing really critically important jobs, which are important for themselves and for their families. In effect, the second income becomes a pivotal and indispensable component of the rise of the middle class in America in the post-war world, in which a two-income family becomes absolutely essential in order for millions of families to be able to afford those $16,000 house in Levittown, all of those other things that are becoming the definition of a middle class lifestyle.
QUESTION: What was the legacy of women working in the war?
WILLIAM CHAFE: I think the most important legacy of women working in World War II was to create a foundation in reality of middle class, middle aged women in the labor force, because prior to World War II, that had been the exception rather than the rule. Now there was a precedent for that to happen, and so, particularly after the initial downturn of women's employment at the end of the war, there was this really significant upsurge, which really goes on all the way through the 1960s. Women are taking jobs at four times faster a rate than men are in the 1950s. These again are not good jobs. They're not high paying jobs. They're not jobs that reflect equality with men. But they are jobs which middle class, middle aged women are taking and they are essential to the development of the mass consumer middle class society which we have characterizing America in the 1950s and 1960s.
QUESTION: What happens to working women in the 1950s?
WILLIAM CHAFE: Well, once again, the 1950s are another period of amazing contradictions, because on the one hand you've got what Betty Friedan has written about as the "feminine mystique," in which the highlight of a woman's life should be raising children, being a housewife, doing all those things that the advertisements say women are supposed to do. And, there are a lot of women doing that. And there is a baby boom going on. And the average number of children per family is four rather than two. So, the notion of the suburban domestic bliss does have some basis in reality. On the other hand, during this same period of time, women are going out into the labor force, especially when their children go to school, after the age of six, they are entering the labor force more often. Sometimes they are part-time jobs. They're not in any way jobs equal to those of man. The changes in women's work patterns in the 1950s does run counter to the notion that all women are imbedded in suburban bliss. But, the reality is that the women who are taking these jobs are not the mothers of one, two and three-year olds. They're the mothers of children who are six, eight, ten and fifteen. And they are mothers of kids who are getting ready to go to college. The jobs the mothers are taking are helping to build a nest egg that will send those kids to college. What happens is that women go back into the labor force, but they don't say they're going back because they wanted to be equal workers with men. They say they want to go back in order to quote-unquote "help the family." This becomes, in effect, the new excuse, the new rationale, which is not inconsistent with cultural norms.
QUESTION: From this experience of women moving into the workforce in World War II, did equality for women follow from this experience?
WILLIAM CHAFE: One of the great ironies of post-war history is that notwithstanding the continuing and extraordinary change in the women's work world, there's almost no progress toward equality. There is a totally double standard in terms of wages, in terms of opportunities. Most colleges are still training women to be nurses and teachers. Most professional schools are not admitting women. And most medical schools, law schools, business schools have quotas. They would not accept more than five percent of women. The hospitals will not accept women interns, so there is a tremendous set of barriers full of discrimination and sexism against women. And so you've got on the one hand the denial of women to have any opportunity to join the mainstream professions and occupations, and on the other hand, you've got this extraordinary increase in the number of women going into the labor force and in effect creating the social foundation for their daughters to come up into maturity with a very different set of perspectives, with a different notion of what women do and don't do. I think one of the real puzzling questions about what happens in the post-World War II era is why all this change does not lead to feminism earlier? I think the answer to that is you always need a catalyst. You need the formation of a critical mass. You need a new consciousness of possibility. And in some ways, that means you need to have role models out there. One of the things that happens in the United States during the 1960s is the civil rights movement provides a role model for millions of people who have also been experiencing discrimination. And so there are extraordinary numbers of women who take part in the civil rights movement, white women as well as black women, and the civil rights movement creates a critical consciousness of the degree to which a physical characteristic like race can be the basis for pervasive and systematic discrimination, and it doesn't take a huge leap of imagination to see the same way in which one's gender, one's sex has also been the basis for this kind of discrimination.
QUESTION: Why do you think Betty Friedan's book, The Feminine Mystique, resonated so much with American women?
WILLIAM CHAFE: When Betty Friedan's book is published in 1963, it really comes at a critically important time in the nation's cultural consciousness. First of all, there had been enormous behavioral changes taking place in which now there are millions of married, middle class women working, mothers of children of six or seven years old. Secondly, there is a new awareness of the cutting edge of ethical and cultural issues raised by the civil rights movement. People are thinking about discrimination. They are thinking about the ways in which physical characteristics like sex and race can be used as a basis of discrimination. And third, there is a huge nerve that Betty Friedan's book touches, which is the awareness of in some ways the emptiness of the suburban mystique, of the feminine mystique, in which women are being told they have no choice but to find thorough fulfillment in being full-time housewives and mothers when many of them don't find it all that fulfilling. And so, when this book comes, it comes at exactly the right moment to in some ways start a grass fire across suburban America in which women say, "I recognize myself there. I'm one of those people who's not that happy. Why don't I get out and do the same things the people in the civil rights movement are doing? I can change my life." Millions of women who can identify with this, and especially college-educated women, women who have been raised to think of themselves as having minds equal to those of men read that book and they say, "Ah, the problem that has no name" - Friedan's description of the feminine mystique - "is my problem. It's our problem. It's the problem of women."
QUESTION: Were the suburbs "comfortable concentration camps" for women in the 1950s as Friedan's book said?
WILLIAM CHAFE: I think the story of women in the 1950's is one of enormous contradiction and paradox. You have on the one hand the feminine mystique that Friedan writes about. You have psychiatrists writing books saying the independent woman is a contradiction in terms, and that all women must find their joy and satisfaction by being dependent on men and on their lives as housewives and mothers. And on the other hand you have this continued growth of women in volunteer organizations and the labor force, the growing number of married middle class women in the labor force. And so it's really cultural schizophrenia. There are countless numbers of women who feel good about where they are and raising their children, and being involved in a whole variety of volunteer activities. And it is not a bad life. It is a, from a material perspective, and also in many ways from a personal perspective it's a very rewarding life, and yet there is something missing as well. So, in some ways I think the concentration camp metaphor is really quite unfortunate, because it suggests a degree of severity and a degree of suffering which is in some ways an insult to those who actually were in concentration camps. And yet there is something about the notion of being imprisoned, which is quite consistent with the experience of millions of women.
QUESTION: Was there a link between the growing political activism and the greater numbers of college educated and working women?
WILLIAM CHAFE: One of the really intriguing questions is why does feminism revive in the mid-1960s as opposed to the mid-1950s. I think there are three answers to that. First of all, there is the degree of behavioral change that's taking place in women's lives. The fact that now there are so many women who are married, middle-class, and mothers in the labor force means that no longer in reality are many women doing what the culture says they're supposed to be doing. That's the behavioral foundation for what comes after. Second of all, there is a new critical consciousness of the degree to which women are being circumscribed and denied opportunities, something which Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique helps to crystallize, highlight and animate. Third, there's the civil rights movement, which creates a really important model for collective action and behavior in support of reform. And these connections are really incredibly tight. The 1964 Civil Rights Act is so important not only because it abolishes discrimination in economy by virtue of race, but also because it includes sex as one of the criteria in which discrimination is prohibited as well. So that means you've got a whole new body of law which recognizes that sex and race are being used in very parallel ways to deny people equal opportunity.
QUESTION: Is there a connection between the sexual revolution and the feminist movement?
WILLIAM CHAFE: One of the things that people always talk about vis-a-vis the 1960s is the sexual revolution, which I think really has a lot to do with the student revolution generally speaking, and with a different attitude towards middle class institutions such as monogamy, marriage, the church, et cetera. It was kind of an impetus toward questioning what has been inherited as sort of the sacrosanct qualities of the culture. Now obviously feminism is certainly part of that, but I don't think feminism can be seen as either the cause of or identical with the sexual revolution because there are so many aspects of feminism which in fact are very inimical or hostile to the notions which are part of the sexual revolution. There is no feminist embrace of the notion of sexual freedom. There is no belief that having multiple partners is necessarily a good thing. There is, in fact, a desire, I think, to have a greater degree of authenticity and commitment in relationships, whether they're between men and women or women and women.
QUESTION: How did the position of women in the 1970s and 1980s improve and how did it get worse?
WILLIAM CHAFE: If you were well educated and had a comfortable middle class background, the feminist revolution made possible for you as a woman [to have] opportunities that were simply not there for your parents or your grandparents - opportunities to go to medical school, law school, business school, to have a career, to become an executive. The glass ceiling was there, but there was still so much else you could do that before you no one else had been able to do. On the other hand, if you didn't have the education, if you didn't have that economic security, women were in fact not better off. They were still in low paying, low promoting, totally constricted and circumscribed jobs. One of the things we don't recognize is that 80 percent of all women in 1990 were in 5 percent of all jobs. These 5 percent of all jobs are essentially the service jobs, the dead end jobs, the ones that have minimum wage salary attached to them or wage attached to them. And these are not people who are enjoying the best of times. In many ways, these are people who are caught up in a cycle of continued poverty and even worsening poverty.