What did the Second World War mean for women and other minority groups in the United States of America (USA)? Did it improve their lives or did it further oppressed them? In order to answer these questions, we have to start a little further back and look at the role of women and minority groups before the Second World War. Before WWII, women were automatically associated with the role of wife, mother, and homemaker. In fact, the stereotypical description of a perfect American family depicted the father as the sole breadwinner of the family while the mother stayed at home. Hence, it was a surprise to discover that a small number of women were already working outside the home during this era. This fact was not glorified as the working women were often from the lower class or apart of the minority group. Thus, they were treated rather harshly and often looked down upon by their male counterparts who were staunch supporters of the fact that a woman’s place is at home (Historpedia, n.d.). The minority groups did not fare any better than the women. Racism was extremely strong in America before WWII and no employers were willing to sully their image by hiring a non-white worker. Hence, many of them were forced to live in poverty. Things started to look better for them in the job aspect when the Second World War started. However, all good things must come at a price or several prices in this case. Although they have been offered jobs, it is arguable that discrimination became worse for both the women and the minorities during the Second World War as several racial riots broke out during this period. Thus, the WWII both positively and negatively impacted women and other minority groups in the USA through increased job opportunities, discrimination, and racial violence.
First and foremost, it is undeniable that the World War 2 has opened up numerous job opportunities for both women and the minority groups. During the war, there was an out-surge of Caucasian males when the Selective Training and Service act was instituted on the 16th of September 1940. With the implementation of this act, all males between the age of 21 to 45 were required to register for the draft. The selection of the males was done through a lottery and those who were selected were required to serve the armed forces for at least a year. This condition was later extended to encompass the duration of the fighting when the United States of America entered WWII. When the war ended in 1945, a total of fifty million men had registered and among those who registered, ten million have been inducted into the military (The National WWII Museum, n.d.). As a result of this out-surge, many jobs were left vacant. The shortage of manpower forced employers to look for workers in previously ignored labor pools such as women and minorities. In order to encourage women to fill up these vacancies quickly, the American government utilized propaganda and spreaded it through print (newspapers, posters and magazines), film, and the radio. Hence, it was at this time when the iconic figure “Rosie the Riveter” was born. Rosie was the star of numerous propaganda posters which emphasized on the patriotic need for women to join the workforce. The most famous poster of Rosie depicts her with a red and white bandana on her head, sleeve of her shirt rolled up to expose her flexed biceps and her face set in a determined gaze. In addition to that, the caption above her read ” We can do it!” This motivational tactic was incredibly efficient on the government’s part as many women started joining the workforce, filling traditional positions previously held by men. For example, jobs such as driving taxis and streetcars, operating heavy machinery, and making military weapons (Bryant, 2018). Apart from joining the factory and other home front jobs, several women chose to enter the armed forces. In May 1942, the Congress decided to introduce a women service branch known as the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps due to the urging and support from First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and General George Marshall. This branch was later known as the Women’s Army Corps as they were upgraded to full military status. This was the same for the Navy where members of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) had equal status as their male counterparts. As they were prohibited from directly participating in combat, they mainly converged their expertise in non-combat jobs such as nursing (History, 2010). However, this was slightly different for those who joined the airforce. The women in the air force were known as Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and they had the opportunity to fly planes to and fro factories and military bases after undergoing the same training that was designed for male pilots (Khan Academy, n.d.). As for the minority groups, their job opportunities only increased when Asa Philip Randolph, a African American Civil Rights Movement leader threatened to conduct a march of protest in Washington to advocate for minorities’ civil rights in wartime employment. Randolph was angered because when the government defence contracting began in 1940, the federal government complied with the demands of businesses to have the right to hire Caucasian workers only. Even if the employer hired African-American workers, most of them were forced to serve in low paying positions such as janitors. Thus, in order to avoid embarrassment due to the protest, President Roosevelt signed the Executive Order 8802 that prohibited discrimination in government hiring. To ensure compliance from the business owners, the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC) was established. This applied additional pressure on the employers to create a climate of equity for all of their workers as they could be reported if they do not comply to the order. This situation on the homefront was almost identical with the experiences of African Americans in the military. Eager to do their part in serving the country, they tried to enlist only to be turned away. Before President Roosevelt set a 10% quota for African Americans in the military, only the Navy and Army corps accepted blacks. With the quota, the minorities were free to join any of the military corps (Hodges, n.d.). As such, the Second World War provided a boon for the women and minorities in America in terms of job opportunities. Although it was not a permanent solution as many of the women were fired once the war was over, it was certainly a step towards the right direction for progress in the future.
Furthermore, is the issue of discrimination towards women and the minority group. Although the Executive Order 8802 implemented by President Roosevelt opened more job opportunities for the minorities in America, discrimination continued to exist. Those who were accepted due to the quota were little more than servants in army garb under the control of Caucasian officers. For example, the African American soldiers were segregated in separate units from their white counterparts and were isolated in the least desirable sections of the military camps. Not only were these areas congested, there were severely lacking in facilities too. Moreover, they were utilized for menials tasks such as truck drivers, cooks, clerk, caretakers of horses and equipment instead of combat. The situation was worse for the minorities in the Navy as there was no units allocated for them. Thus, they were restricted to the “messman branch” which consisted of positions such as the messboy and steward (Florida Historical Society, 1908). The discrimination of minorities also applied to women in the minority group. This is because employers would often be put in a tight spot as their white workers would refuse to share the facilities or work with the minority group. For instance, an automobile company in Chicago refused to hire 15 African American women because their Caucasian women employees did not want to share the toilet facilities with them. As such, the employer did not hire the African American women in order to reduce the risk of losing his white employees (Karen, n.d.). However, the discrimination was not only limited to the minority group as working women also suffered from it although it was not as severe in comparison to the minorities. The discrimination against women workers could be clearly seen in the auto industry. During the war, many unions such as the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union shared a common concern of getting unemployed men in the United States to get back to work. Although they seemed to support women workers by declaring that women should recieve pay with men if they do the same job, their true stance was made clear when they issued a strike notice against a company in Detroit named Kelsey Hayes Wheels. In the notice, they demanded the company to remove all female employees from engaging in machine work because it was a “man’s job”. The company did not heed this warning and proceeded to hire two more female workers, which caused their male workers to stage a walkout. Thus, the company had no choice but to withdraw their female employees from skilled jobs and limit them to 25% of the workforce in order to pacify their male employees. Consequently, most employees hired after that were males as the companies in the auto industry did not wish to oppose the union on this issue and end up like the Kelsey Hayes Wheels Company (Brown University, n.d.).
Lastly, the Second World War negatively impacted the minority groups in the United States of America as they were victims of numerous instances of racial violence during riots. The most notable racial riots at this time was the Zoot Suit Riots and the Detroit Race Riot. First was the Zoot Suit Riots which were fights between zoot suiters, sailor and marines stationed in Los Angeles, California. A zoot suit was a style of clothing often worn by Harlem dancers which consists of baggy trousers with tapered cuffs, long jackets with heavy shoulder padding, watch chains and a hat. Like a trend, this style of attire quickly gained popularity among Mexican
-American and African-American young men (History, 2017). On the 3rd of June 1943, eleven sailors of Caucasian descent accused the zoot suiters of assaulting them even though they did not suffer from any major injuries.When the cops arrived at the scene, they were in support of the sailors despite not having any concrete evidence. In the report, it was stated that the zoot suiters attacked the sailors without being provoked. As if that was not condemning enough, they were also accused of praising Hitler. After this incident, the tension escalated further when the sailors constantly went to the streets to beat and stript anyone wearing a zoot suit. Apparently, there have been accusations of zoot suiters harassing women around them. Hence, the sailors decided to take things into their own hands. While the police witnessed these incidences, they prevented anyone from helping the zoot suiters. This brutality continued for several days before it ended on the 8th of June 1943 when the sailors and marines were prohibited from entering Los Angeles. Although this was a clear case of racism and hate crime, the public at that time except for the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt continued to deny that it was the root of this riot (Campos-Banales, n.d.). The next riot was the Detroit Riot. Despite it lasting only a day, it was considered one of the worst riots during the Second World War (BlackPast.org, n.d.). This riot started on the 20th of June when two black youth, incensed by their expulsion from Eastwood Park on the 15th of June traveled to the Belle Isle Amusement Park to try and get some answers. They were angered further when the police blatantly displayed racism by searching the cars that were occupied by black people only on the way to Belle Isle but did not do the same for the Caucasians. Soon, rumours began to fly among the parties. Firstly, Leo Tipton, a black man declared in a nightclub that the whites had heartlessly thrown a black woman and her infant off the Belle Isle Park Bridge (Rowe, 2010). This ignited the ire and fear of the patrons who flooded the streets of Woodward, breaking windows and looting goods from the stores. In a dominantly white populated area nearby, another rumor started to spread. This time, the rumor stated that a black man has raped and murdered a white woman on the Belle Isle Bridge. Thus, an angry mob of Caucasians took to the streets, overturning and burning cars driven by black people as well as beating the black people getting off from street cars. In addition to that, they looted the stores as well (Baulch & Zacharias, 2000). The riot finally came to an end when the Mayor and Governor of the town asked President Roosevelt for help. Their call for help was responded as the president sent many federal troops in armored cars and jeeps to Woodward to help restore order. This was highly effective as the mobs quickly dispersed when they caught sight of the troops. The riot claimed the death of 34 individuals, 25 of them were black while the others were white. Moreover, a total of 1893 people were arrested, the vast majority of them were black. This aroused a question regarding the handling of rioters by the Detroit Police (Rowe, 2010). As both parties committed similar crimes, why were the arrested rioters mainly black people? Both parties had varying opinion. The whites saw the police’s actions as justified while the blacks summed it up as racism and police brutality (Rowe,2010).
In conclusion, the Second World War benefitted both the women and minority groups in America as it opened various doors for them in terms of jobs opportunities. Due to the exigencies of males during the war, employers were forced to tap into the previous unearthed pool of labour and hire women and minorities such as African Americans to fill the vacant job positions. As a result, the minorities who were historically powerless were able to enjoy the prosperity of having a job and no longer needed to live in constant poverty. In addition to that, the opportunity to undertake the jobs that were previously occupied by men allowed women to falsify the traditional and outdated belief that a woman is incompetent in the work field and should be kept at home as homemaker. Thus, these breakthroughs in tradition managed to lay down the foundation for feminist and civil rights movements in the future. Despite these social progresses, many hurdles such as the discrimination and racial violence of women and minorities still exists. Till this day, incidences like these continue to occur in America which is a huge embarrassment on their part. Although we cannot change the past, we can certainly do something now to prevent history from repeating itself on a worse scale as guns are now actively in use in America. All we need is a bit of tolerance from everyone and if everyone does their part, the world would be a better and safer place.