Working Class Women Issues of the 1940s & 1950s

Written by liz frazier
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Working Class Women Issues of the 1940s & 1950s
Betty Friedan is one of the founders of the modern feminist movement. (Peter Kramer/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

The 1940s and 1950s were a time of flux for women's issues in the U.S. During the first half of the '40s, WWII and the absence of men on the homefront brought women into work roles that were new and offered more independence. However, when the war ended and the men returned, most women had to relinquish this freedom. The 1950s saw the idealisation of the suburban homemaker archetype, a model that working class women had a very difficult time fulfilling.

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In the Workplace

Women were working in factories before 1940. With the advent of WWII, women began working in shipbuilding, aeroplane manufacturing and other industries previously dominated by males. Working class women were able to support themselves and their families. However, when soldiers came back, these women had to move back to traditional lower paying positions such as seamstresses. Also, in cases where men and women were working in similar fields women earned less money.

Reproductive Rights

Through the late '50s birth control was inaccessible, which made planning families difficult. This was especially hard on single working class women, since a pregnancy meant time taken off work just when more money was needed to care for new babies. During these years prospective employees could ask women if they were pregnant during job interviews in order to weed them out of the hiring process. Finally, abortion were also illegal at this time, and women with unwanted pregnancies either had to give birth or have an illegal abortion, which was dangerous.

In the Military

While women also left the military in great numbers after WWII, many stayed, usually in nursing and clerical positions. Working class women especially used military service as the path to a better life. After the war, women's roles in the military expanded until the eventual gender integration in the 1970s.

In the Home

It was during the 1950s that the image of the model homemaker came into the public consciousness, spread by the invention of television. Shows like "Leave it to Beaver" and "The Donna Reed Show" exalted the idea of women running the home and tending to the children while their husbands worked. Even working class women felt pressure to live up to these expectations, working through the day and having the house cleaned and dinner on the table by the time the family got home in the evening.

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