Feminism and World War 2

2 May, 2021

Feminism and World War 2 in propaganda. Originally a «Rosie» was the face of war production, today she is a feminist symbol
Feminism and World War 2 in propaganda. Originally a «Rosie» was the face of war production, today she is a feminist symbol

Feminism and World War 2 are deeply related. It is no coincidence at all for one of the most enduring symbols of feminism to be a poster for the recruitment of women for war production. Reproduced ad nauseam today by all kinds of feminist groups, Rosie the Riveter even has a theme song. It is the female embodiment of a war effort whose propaganda included women as never before because never before had female incorporation into the slaughter taken on a similar dimension. In the reorganization of the entire society to maximize the number of soldiers available for the massacre, women of the petty bourgeoisie soon saw a unique possibility for social advancement.

In the forties there was another world war to think about…Women had substantial jobs for the first times in several decades. Genuinely needed by society to their fullest capacity, they were temporarily granted human, as opposed to female status. (In fact, feminists are forced to welcome wars as their only chance). Truly needed by society to the best of their ability, they were temporarily granted the status of human beings, a status opposite to that of women. In fact, feminists are forced to embrace wars as their only opportunity.

Shulamith Firestone, founder of radical feminism

In this article

The role of women in the US war effort

U.S. war propaganda poster recruiting women for work in military industries. A symbol of imperialism and slaughter turned into a universal symbol of feminism.
U.S. war propaganda poster recruiting women for work in military industries. A symbol of imperialism and slaughter turned into a universal symbol of feminism.

The second imperialist world war was the most devastating war in history. It demanded a much greater supply of cannon fodder. War production far exceeded that of the previous world war.

The U.S. bourgeoisie needed not only to dress up in a uniform and send to slaughter a good part of the working class – by the end of the war the U.S. Army had under its command 12 million people – but also a new mass of manpower with which to make up for the bloodletting suffered by the workers and develop war production.

To accomplish this, the government decided to do two things unprecedented until then:

  1. Eliminate the ban on women enlisting in the military.
  2. A massive recruitment drive of women for militarized industries, so that males who normally worked in those industries would be availableas cannon fodder. Labor protections, including those that were applicable only to women, were also suspended during the war.

Women earned the rightto work for the military and to obtain military status.The role of these army womenwas to perform military jobs unrelated to direct combat. In this way, males who previously did these jobs could go on to become soldiers.

In 1942 the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed, the Navy established Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), and the Coast Guard formed the Semper Paratus, Always Ready (SPAR). A year later, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and an all-female Marine Corps were created. Although the WAAC initially had no military status, it acquired it in 1943 and was renamed the Women’s Army Corps(WAC). That was the main purpose and merit of the women’s military divisions.

The female petty bourgeoisie and wartime mobilization

Meet Total War with your Total Effort. Military recruitment poster during World War 2.
Meet Total War with your Total Effort. Military recruitment poster during World War 2.

The creation of women’s military branches offered a path to social advancement for women of the petty bourgeoisie. In 1942, the head of the WAAC, in a speech to the first officers of the women’s military branches, declared:

You are the first women in the service…. Never forget that… You have given up comfortable homes, high-paying jobs, leisure. You have taken off your silk and put on khaki. And all for the same reason: you have a debt and an appointment. A debt to democracy, an appointment with destiny.

Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War 2. Emily Yellin

The government also realized that reorganizing industry for war meant staffing managerial and professional positions as well. Therefore, a massive campaign had to be launched to recruit not only women workers, but a relevant number of petty-bourgeois women.

The obsession to multiply the number of women engineers and awaken vocations among girls is not a recent development, but a product of the needs of factory militarization under the conditions of world war 2.

The mobilization revealed a material tension between the aspirations of the female petty bourgeoisie and the need of the petty bourgeoisie as a whole to maintain the cohesion of the family. This tension had been worsening, fueled by its own remedies. During the Great Depression, the fight against legal limits on married women’s work had been made in the name of preserving the petty-bourgeois family. However, the abolition of the prohibitions expanded the possibilities for petty-bourgeois women to free themselves from the chains of the traditional family.

The government, aware of the resistance that could be generated by this empowerment of propertied women in the administration and administration of the slaughter, argued again and again that it was a temporary situation with temporary positions that would be filled again by males upon their return from the front. They spread all kinds of propaganda to achieve this. And the message was clear in each and every one of them: Women who do these jobs only do it to contribute to the war effort. Once the war is over, they will happily return home.

The same message was present in the propaganda aimed at recruiting women for the army. The women themselves in all recruitment films repeated the same thing over and over again so that there would be no doubt: it was about liberating males from duties other than combat.

Wonder Woman, 1943
Wonder Woman, 1943

But curbing the aspirations of the female petty bourgeoisie would not be such an easy task. After all, petty-bourgeois women were able to advance a great deal during the war. The number of women obtaining university positions tripled during the World War 2 and, according to Margaret Rossiter, constituted their major contribution to the war effort.

In addition, many of them were entering universities to fill the demand for personnel for military courses that were part of the Navy’s V-12 Program and the Army’s Specialized Training Program (ASTP).

A cultural shift can already be seen with the creation of Wonder Woman in 1941, a patriotic, Nazi-hunting superheroine and member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). Wonder Woman, unlike Rosie the Riveter, was not a temporary heroine… she had superpowers beyond those of many of the male characters in the Justice League and was, above all, a patriot who fought full time and permanently.

The postwar period and the evolving role of the petty-bourgeois woman

Estée Lauder was one of the entrepreneurs who opened her business in 1946, taking advantage of the drop in the price of labor resulting from the demobilization of millions of soldiers.
Estée Lauder was one of the entrepreneurs who opened her business in 1946, taking advantage of the drop in the price of labor resulting from the demobilization of millions of soldiers.

The typical account of the period following World War 2 asserts that, like World War I, it generated incredible wealth for the American nation from which all classes benefited.

However, the feminist version of postwar history counters that although women had proven their worth during the war effort, they were forced to return home the moment they discovered their own capabilities.

For feminism, the postwar period, especially the 1950s, was a reactionary period because it forced petty-bourgeois women back into the home… not because it was the period during which national capital enjoyed theprofits of the most devastating war in history, nor because the nation defended its achievements by ruthlessly attacking the workers and their movement.

No, for feminism the problem is that petty-bourgeois women were not being sufficiently appreciated by the nation despite having demonstrated their dedication to it.

But the truth is that work bans for married women were not reinstated after World War 2, and instead of firing them when they married, companies offered them part-time work. What’s more, married women with investment possibilities were encouraged to establish their own businesses.

Contrary to what feminists would have us believe, the postwar period was the period in which petty-bourgeois women in the U.S. advanced the most socially.

In 1945, as World War 2 was drawing to a close, New York Governor Thomas Dewey launched an ingenious strategy for postwar economic recovery and redevelopment. The program, which focused on small businesses as the key to the state’s future prosperity, sought to boost new enterprises by offering a range of training and counseling services to aspiring entrepreneurs.

What made Governor Dewey’s effort especially novel, however, was its extension to women. In June 1945, the governor established a Women’s Program and a Women’s Council within the Department of Commerce, charged with encouraging and assisting women business owners to launch independent enterprises…

Through the Women’s Program, Governor Dewey hoped to solve several pressing postwar problems at once. First, it could help women who substituted in wartime for the jobs of returned soldiers by providing these women with an alternative outlet for their new entrepreneurial impulses.

Second, small or home-based businesses could address the joint economic and family burdens of married women whose husbands did not return from the war or returned too damaged to work. Third, in trying to reestablish the 100,000 small businesses that were lost during the war, the state sought the help of women…. As a direct result of the business clinics and related program services, by 1951 more than 11,000 women had created new businesses in New York. […]

From 1945 through the mid-1950s, nationwide publicity and pressure from women led 20 other states to adopt variations of the small business clinics model in New York.

Toward a New History of the Postwar Economy: Prosperity, Preparedness, and Women’s Small Business Ownershipp

Significantly, these policies also helped black petty bourgeois women move up the social ladder. That is, the conditions conducive to both the second wave feminist movement and the Civil Rights Movement were sowed postwar.

The number of professional women, especially in academia, grew significantly. The culture also transformed to adapt to these changes.

While in films of the 1930s, such as Ann Carver’s Profession, the professional and wealthy woman eventually realizes that her true role is at home and ends up giving up her career, women in science fiction films of the 1950s never give up their careers and fall in love with the males who accept theircareer ambitions. This is the era when the American petty bourgeoisie abandoned old sexual taboos such as the one that made premarital sex shameful for unmarried people.

Feminism as part of the Cold War ideological narrative

During the Cold War, women workers kept working in war production and civilian industry, while feminism fought to eliminate the legal protections they enjoyed in factories in favor of promoting women engineers and administrators to management positions.
During the Cold War, women workers kept working in war production and civilian industry, while feminism fought to eliminate the legal protections they enjoyed in factories in favor of promoting women engineers and administrators to management positions.

In case World War 2 had not been enough for the petty bourgeoisie to abandon their cult of domesticity once and for all, the Cold War finally prompted the cultural shift. Once again, feminism understood that the path to the advancement of petty-bourgeois women was to frame their aspirations within the ideological argument of the imperialist war looming on the horizon.

In 1950, when the United States entered the Korean War, BPW (Business and Professional Women’s Foundation) pledged its support immediately, and its leaders were quick to participate in various forums, conferences and programs to strengthen the free world against the dangers of communism. In 1953, the federation’s board of directors unanimously adopted a Declaration of Principles that recognized the dangers threatening our democracy from within and without, and called on members to organize their programs and efforts to combat communism and other forms of totalitarian propaganda. A few years later, BPW publicized its pamphlet, The Role of Women in Fighting Communism.

For BPW leaders, support for the Cold War did not involve the confinement of women within their homes. On the contrary, BPW explicitly used the Cold War to promote women’s participation in the public sphere. Using arguments articulated during World War 2, the federation linked improved national security with greater participation of women in government and business…

The Cold War also proved useful in BPW’s efforts on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment. Just as African-American civil rights leaders pointed to the racism that undermined American democracy and embarrassed the United States internationally, BPW leaders pointed to the gender-based legal inequalities that belied U.S. claims of equal rights for all… In 1956 Hazel Palmer, BPW’s national president stated the argument bluntly:

The prestige of the United States is attacked by Russia on the grounds that it does not grant its women equal legal rights. If our Constitution contained the Equal Rights Amendment, the United States would not be in the position of endorsing this principle in theory only to be unable to put it into practice.

In this line of argument, victory in the Cold War did not depend on upholding the domestic role of women, but on promoting equal rights.

Rethinking Cold War Culture

And it wasn’t just BPW, many other feminist groups ended up linking feminist goals to the Cold War argument. Thirty-eight organizations united at a women’s conference in 1950 to form an umbrella organization to mobilize and use women’s strength for national security needs.

Had the Equal Rights Amendment been passed at that time, it would have eliminated all labor protections and legislation specific to women that applied to industries not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. Women workers would have immediately suffered the hardened conditions of exploitation that would apply in the following decade. But that was not going to faze a feminism that witnessed a thriving female stratum in the corporate petty bourgeoisie.

In 1957, the President’s Committee on Scientists and Engineers recommended breaking down employment barriers for women in science, engineering and technical fields.

Rethinking Cold War Culture

All of this would culminate in the creation of a presidential commission created by President Kennedy in 1961. As we discussed in a previous article, this same commission, which aimed to bring women into the Cold War, led to the creation of an organization that was to play a crucial role in the second wave of feminism, the National Organization for Women (NOW)… i.e., feminism’s second wave is a direct result of the Cold War. The surge of feminism has always been linked to the social implementation of imperialism’s wartime demands.

The sexual revolution and the destruction of the traditional petty-bourgeois family

Students for a Democratic Society
Students for a Democratic Society

As we have already discussed, the feminism of the so-called second wave is also not separable from the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s that marked a significant and painful change for American petty bourgeois families.

The old hiring practices were designed to preserve the traditional petty-bourgeois family structure. Thus, establishing equal rights for both sexes to pursue a career, to own a business, regardless of their marital status, meant the undermining of the traditional family. The right to undergo an abortion, claimed by NOW feminism, was the final nail in the coffin.

One might come to think that feminism’s struggle should have ended here. But no. The petty-bourgeois woman had to establish herself in a world to which she had arrived late. The sexual revolution, moreover, was not liberating in any real sense. It destroyed intimacy in literally every possible meaning of the word, as can be seen in the culture of the New Left of the 1960s.

For New Left activists, sleeping with othermilitants was just another way of establishing political ties. Sex was part of politics – and vice versa. That’s why no ambitious woman of the New Left wanted to be called a prude… it was not only a personal offense, it also meant that she was going to be left out of the small circles of political power in the university or militant environments.

The result: a perverse culture in which women used to sleep with the leaders of leftist groups in order to achieve leadership positions. It was the custom, for instance, in the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the most emblematic group of the time. Thus radical feminism – a product of the New Left – could do nothing but assert that the personal is political.

For the feminism that emerged from the petty-bourgeois upsurge of the 1960s, denying sex, becoming a political lesbian (having sex only with other women even if it did not fall under personal preferences) or even neglecting one’s personal appearance represented political acts. That is, the way feminists resisted being treated as sex objects by male activists could only reinforce the destruction of the line between theintimate (personal) and the political. The sexual revolution did not imply fraternity or equality between the sexes of the petty bourgeoisie… but, on the contrary, fostered mistrust and competition.

Now, what does this have to do with feminism and the war? Aren’t all these groups linked in one way or another to the anti-war protests in Vietnam? Wasn’t feminism instrumental in getting the U.S. out of the conflict?

In reality, the US mobilized relatively few soldiers in the Vietnam War. In the conflict as a whole it did not reach half a million. It did not need to alter its productive structure, the factory system or mobilize the population en masse. During that period only 11,500 women out of the more than 265,000 women in the U.S. Army went to Vietnam. The mobilization of women, the vast majority of them students, against the war never represented a minimally subversive way of confronting military mobilization or war production.

So it cannot be said that the opposition of feminist groups represented a break between feminism and the state at any relevant level. Nor politically. The rejection of the war by the petty-bourgeois youth of the time did not for a moment bring them closer to the working class or to equipping themselves with a program of real struggle against capitalism.

Very symbolically, one of the first feminist gestures of the Clinton administration – which represented the arrival in the Democratic leadership of a generation of university cadres trained in the New Left and second-wave feminism – was to inaugurate in Washington the official memorial to the women who served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam.

Feminism and war

Imperialist wars have propelled feminism forward while making it more totalitarian and destructive. As feminism grows in influence and strength, its grip reaches into more and more aspects of our lives where it seeks to assert itself in order to guarantee a role within capitalism and a piece of national capital for petty bourgeois women.

Everything is subordinated to this goal: within the ruling classes to assert new spaces of power and eliminate competition; towards the workers, to split us in half in order to assert feminist leaderships and present as liberating the rise to corporate power of a new generation of female exploiters.

As can be seen with feminist tools immediately adopted by the state such as the gender gap, far from promoting real equality between men and women in the workplace, feminism uses the inequality between classes to peddle to us how the rise of the female faction of the bourgeois classes to new heights of power is something positive… Feminism only ceases to establish boundaries and dividing lines… in order to send the workers of both sexes to the slaughterhouse. That is why we now see feminism talking about how great it would be if conscription in the army included women.

Fighting against militarism and fighting against the artificial division of labor and society by sexes and its use to divide our capacity to respond as a class today involves confronting feminism. It is a struggle we can only win if we do precisely what feminism does not want us to do: fight together as workers overcoming all the false divisions with which the ruling class tries to divide us, from sex to nationality. Only in this way will we be able to stop the wars they want to lead us into.