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War, Work, and Women

Americans knew the effort of fighting the Second World War had changed their country. Some change was immediately noticeable. For example, the sick, old economy of the Depression was replaced with a booming manufacturing sector. America had lost its isolationist outlook and would maintain a continued presence  in post-war Europe and Asia—particularly as the Soviet Union changed from ally to nemesis.

Domestic America had also changed. The returning GI might have sensed a difference in women’s attitudes, but nothing like a call for equal rights. Women, for the most part, quietly put down the rivet gun and resumed traditional roles as homemakers. They were generally glad the men had returned and looked forward to the domestic life the Depression denied them.

But the war years had given women a closer look at attitudes that shaped their lives and destinies. They thought about it, long and hard. And while they continued the model of femininity their mothers had instilled in them, they raised their daughters with different expectations.

Three articles from 1944 give an historic view of attitudes that shaped women’s post-war thinking. The first, “Paper Dolls” [May 20, 1944 - PDF download], reported on women journalists who had proven they could do the jobs left vacant by men in service.

Women have invaded such hitherto inviolate masculine precincts on newspapers as finance, politics, sports, and the police beat. Paper dolls are reading copy, working on the rewrite desk, taking pictures. They are covering riots, crimes of purple passion, train wrecks, fires and suicides without swooning.

Much to the astonishment of the misogynists who work alongside them, the paper always appears on time, it is reasonably free of errors and there has not yet been a deluge of libel suits or indignant readers canceling their subscriptions.

The authors, who were [ahem] both men, grudgingly conceded:

It pains die-hard newshounds to admit it, but the newspapers would have been in an awful jam in the last two years if women had not been ready, willing and sometimes [sic] able to step into vacancies on staffs depleted by the draft.

While ignoring the condescension in their article’s title, the authors wrote about the outspoken, unapologetic contempt that newspaper editors felt toward women.

Women in the newsroom are working alongside men.

"Typical copy desk today. That skirted reporter at the left chats sociably between puffs while two female copyreaders struggle with dispatches and a copy girl does her best."

All things considered, the recommendations in favor of newspaperwomen outweigh the objections against them, but the ancient prejudice still holds firm. Managing and city editors are suffering the dames under protest; chivalry impels them to throw the ladies a few words of good cheer and encouragement, but candor compels most editors to admit they will take a dumb man of erratic social habits over a smart gal every time.

According to the city editor of a major paper, “No matter how able they are, all are given to chattering among themselves and with personable male staff men,” Bodin broods. “They are coy and warm by turns; they clutter and clatter endlessly. Every afternoon, just after the home-edition dead line, the local room presents the sight and sound of a meeting of neurotic clubwomen. The atmosphere demoralizes the men. I have to restrain myself violently from installing a samovar and serving tea and ladyfingers at three o’clock.”

The girls write well enough, they have a deft touch on descriptive stories, human-interest yarns and interviews—provided they don’t gush over the interview. Yet it is rare to see a woman write the lead story on a news break of major importance. Most editors believe women have a constitutional inability to gather up all the loose ends of a complicated story and weave them into a compact, well-rounded piece.

Fortunately, the authors were aware of some basic truths of the situation:

A few words in defense of the girls should be offered at this time. All the faults found with them can be applied to inexperienced men: editors are prone to forget that the majority of their paper dolls were secretaries, file clerks, telephone operators, receptionists or copy a girls a short time ago.

They have been thrown into jobs demanding special technique and know-how without the basic training given men reporters in normal times. Veterans had to serve a long apprenticeship of dreary leg-work, and they were promoted slowly as their knowledge of the craft expanded. The girls have been plunged into the whirlpool of news without the breaking-in process that teaches them how to keep their heads above water. Newspaperwomen further are laboring under strains men do not have to contend with.

Many are married and some have young children; there are households to maintain and, if husbands are in the service, there is a constant pressure for money.

Read “Paper Dolls” [PDF download]

Next: You Just Can’t Get Decent War Workers These Days

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  • Dee

    Sorry, but that photo at top is just disgusting. Ugh. It’s the very opposite of femininity. I’m so tired of all the gender-bending nonsense going on these days with amazon warrior females in movies and men being shown as simpering wimps obeying their wives. The only people who find that sort of thing appealing are those who have been brainwashed by the unnatural theories of radical, manhood-hating feminism.

    I’m very glad that women are no longer confined to a very narrow choice of careers. Most of my professional life has been spent as an engineer, and I strongly support encouraging girls to excel in math, science and engineering. There is no conflict between my femininity and my engineering career. There is are few mental differences between men and women; some emotional differences; and considerable physical differences. There’s no reason why a woman can’t be a brilliant scientist or engineer.

    But there’s a very good reason why she can’t be a good combat soldier or firefighter or boxer or football player or construction worker. Men are innately bigger and much stronger than women, and also more aggressive, all thanks to the miracle of testosterone. This is not something to deny or ignore or minimize or complain about; it’s something to celebrate, the natural differences between the sexes that give life its romantic fire. Basic sex differences are indeed innate and natural, and not merely “cultural” or a “social construct.” A bull and a cow are very different kinds of animals, and it’s not due to their culture.

    So let’s celebrate big, strong, powerful, aggressive men, and also small, petite, weak, fragile, delicate women. And next time, instead of a photo of a woman ridiculously flexing her arms, put a photo of a muscular man flexing his biceps — perhaps with an adoring female or two looking on in admiration.

    I’m sure it’s a lot easier to find vintage photos of men flexing their muscles anyway. This sick and twisted infatuation with mannish amazons and viragos is a relatively recent thing in our culture, which seems to be trying to undo a million years of human evolution with its encouragement of all this gender-bending nonsense. And we wonder about the death of romance?? When men once again embrace their masculinity and women once again revel in their femininity, then the heat and fire of romance will rise again.