Women in the United States labor force from 1945 to 1950

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World War II per se did not cause a major change in women’s labor force participation after it ended and returning male soldiers reclaimed their jobs. Trends in women’s labor force participation post World War II are correlated with mobilization rates in their respective states. This outward shift in the labor supply by location was maintained through the 1950s and 1960s. Most impacted by mobilization were the more educated women who were married with children during World War II.[1] Supporting their participation was the rise of the tertiary sector, increases in part-time jobs, adoption of labor saving household technologies, and education.[2]

Prior to WWII[edit]

Before World War II, there existed persistent and systematic discrimination against women workers. This includes bars to married women working in most states. During the high unemployment of the Great Depression many thought men should have preference, because that way there can be at least one provider for every family. The U.S. culture determined that women gain employment before marriage, but upon marriage, to dedicate themselves to their main duty - in maintaining the family home. The important anti-discrimination legislation Equal Pay Act of 1963 would not be passed until 1963. In 1940, 28% of women over 14 participated in the labor force while men over the age of 10 had a 96% workforce participation rate.[3]

During WWII[edit]

The war caused the mobilization of 16 million Americans, mostly white men who were not farmers or German. But the states’ contribution to America’s mobilization varied between 40% (Georgia) and 53.6% (Maine) of eligible men, hence the impact on subgroups varied.[1] In 1945, 37% of women were employed, encouraged by factors such as war time propaganda[4] or the positive income effect of husbands in the military earning less.[3] Real wages did not increase during this period due to high income taxes.[1] Although jobs that had been previously closed to women opened up, demographics such as African American women who had already been participating more fully experienced less change. Their husbands income effect was historically even more positive than white women’s. During the war African American women engagement as domestic servants decreased from 59.9% to 44.6%, but Karen Anderson in 1982 characterized their experience as “last hired, first fired.”[5]

After WWII[edit]

By 1950 the portion of women in the labor force was down to 32%.[3] Claudia Goldin used Gladys Palmer’s retrospective surveys of women and men’s work history from 1940 to 1951 to track changes in weeks worked and labor force participation rate and correlated that with states’ mobilization rates.[6] Women with children who were better educated did not actually have to work during the war, yet their participation rate later in life still correlates with their states mobilization rate. More educated women who did choose to work during the war were more likely to enter fields with less competition from men that allowed them to continue on, as opposed to lower educated women who entered sectors such as manufacturing only until men reclaimed those jobs.[1]

There has been a controversy about the significance of World War II to women workers. William Chafe in 1972[7] had called it a watershed for reasons including forcing a change in attitudes, however women were also employed in World War I and no such change in attitude occurred after that. He also referred to the changes as a “second emancipation” for African American women. In fact, returning men claimed many of the jobs women occupied during the war.[8] World War II had little impact on women without a high school diplomas long term labor force participation.[1] But one demographic was impacted: in 1940 13.8% of white married women 35 to 44 y/o were working, while in 1950 25.3% were.[8] Important factors at the time that led to general increases in women’s participation include: rise of the tertiary sector (see table), increases in part-time jobs, adoption of labor saving household technologies, and education.[2] Part-time jobs were more compatible with raising children. Labor saving devices lowered the time cost for women of a family. High school and college education better prepared women for employment. There was also a decline in the stigma that a husband’s worth was less if the wife worked in this time period.[2] The divorce rate was still low in the 1940s and 50s and less important. Labor force participation was no longer only a transitory phase of a woman’s life, as women transitioned to a role of both mothers and workers. Middle-class mothers as well as the poor were burdened by the double shift of working a job and in the home.

In the table below is a breakdown by sector of jobs held by women in 1940 and 1950. Women overwhelmingly worked in jobs segmented by sex. Women were still highly employed as textile workers and domestic servants, but the clerical and service field greatly expanded. This tertiary sector was more socially acceptable and many more educated women entered. Wages were low, averaging roughly 60% of men’s and there was little room for advancement.[9]

Occupation 1940 1950 Increase Percentage of Total Increase
Professional, technical 1,608 2,007 399 6.84%
Managers, officials, proprietors 414 700 286 4.90
Clerical 2,700 4,502 1,802 30.88
Sales 925 1,418 493 8.45
Manual 2,720 3,685 965 16.54
Craftswomen, forewomen 135 253 118 2.02
Operatives 2,452 3,287 835 14.31
Laborers 133 145 12 0.21
Service Workers 2,699 3,532 833 14.27
Farm Workers 508 601 93 1.59


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Goldin, Claudia; Claudia Olivetti (2013). "Shocking labor supply: A reassessment of the role of World War II on US women's labor supply". National Bureau of Economic Research. w18676.
  2. ^ a b c Goldin, Claudia (2006). "The quiet revolution that transformed women's employment, education, and family". National Bureau of Economic Research. w11953.
  3. ^ a b c Moody, Kim (1988). An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. London: Verso. p. 22. ISBN 0860919293.
  4. ^ Rupp, Leila (1978). Mobilizing women for war: German and American propaganda, 1939-1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691046492.
  5. ^ Anderson, Karen Tucker (1982). "Last hired, first fired: Black women workers during World War II". The Journal of American History. 69 (1): 82–97. doi:10.2307/1887753.
  6. ^ Palmer, Gladys Louise; Carol Brainerd (1954). "Labor mobility in six cities: a report on the survey of patterns and factors in labor mobility, 1940-1950". Social Science Research Council.
  7. ^ Chafe, William H. (1972). The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles. 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195015789.
  8. ^ a b Goldin, Claudia (1991). "The role of World War II in the rise of women's work". National Bureau of Economic Research. w3203.
  9. ^ Stansell, Christine (2011). The feminist promise : 1792 to the present (Modern Library paperback ed.). New York: Modern Library. p. 184. ISBN 978-0812972023.
  10. ^ Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Census. 1975. p. 132. ISBN 0160004608.