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]