Rosie the Riveter and the Stay at Home Mom
World War II disrupted not only world order, but order here on the Home Front. Industries which had made consumer goods like cars and appliances shifted over to wartime production. Everyday routines were disrupted by rationing and blackouts.
But no groups were more disrupted than women and blacks. (Excluding, of course the terrible disruption of Japanese Americans interred in camps.)
For many women, the primary disruption was the removal of men – husbands, fathers, brothers, sons – from their lives. A substantial number of women not only entered the workforce for the first time, but many found that they enjoyed the feeling of competence and independence a job provided. Rossie the Riveter became an icon.
A second, and longer lasting, disruption occurred when men came home expecting that life would return to pre-war norms but were confronted by wives who chose to remain working.
Employers had become accustomed to women in the work force and now, with the post-war economic boom, the door for women’s’ opportunities was nailed open.
In 1941 the percentage of women who worked outside the home was 25%, mostly in low level clerical work, or as nurses and teachers. In one generation that percentage doubled and today is estimated at 70+%.
For more on this, I’m re-sending, below, an earlier blog post from last April.
If you have a story about women on the home front, please send it along.
The Short, Mythical Era of the Stay at Home Mom
Ah, the stay at home mom! The 1950s, a time when moms stayed home and baked cookies and all was perfect. It’s a myth. What was your experience? Did you have a stay at home Mom or were you, like so many, a latchkey kid, outside, finding out about the world on your own?
Post your growing up stories – or just a comment – here. I’ll share them!
Those were the days. Dad went off to work while Mom stayed home and took care of the house.
She helped out at the PTA. She baked cookies for the kids. She was always there when they came home from school. That’s the way it used to be. That’s how it should be. That’s the way it always was.
No, it wasn’t. That idealized image did exist, but only for a short time, maybe little over a decade. Like so many things, this phenomenon requires going back to the WWII era. In the early 1940s the 25% of women working outside the home mostly followed traditional roles as teachers, nurses, and office assistants though some worked in sewing and other factories.
By 1945, at the height of the war, about one third of women worked outside the home, the increase caused by their working in war production factories.
The other two thirds may have been at home but they were not just baking cookies. Women at home in the 1940s worked hard in addition to helping in the war effort. They washed and dried laundry by hand. They managed the family’s food by shopping frequently, gardening, canning, and supervising the schedule for ice. Floors walls and windows required hand sweeping, scrubbing and wiping.
Rationing meant detailed planning and making everything last. “Making do” was the catch phrase.
The war ended and things changed. Rationing was over. A factory that was making tanks now introduced refrigerators and that meant no more ice, no need to shop every day or can garden raised vegetables. In fact, newly introduced frozen vegetables even saved cooking time as did the new Betty Crocker ready to use cake mixes. Vacuum cleaners and automated washing machines further lightened the work load and gave women time. The post war boom brought good jobs and wages, wages enough that only Dad had to go to work.
Thus the era of the stay at home mom was born, somewhere around 1948 to 1950. It may have been just as many remember it, cookies and all, Mom at the door when the kids came home. But it wasn’t forever. In fact, as eras go it was short. In 1950 the number of women working outside the home returned to the pre-war 25%. But women, now with time available to them, were questioning their roles, and expectations. By the 1960s the universal ideal of the stay at home mom was already beginning to wane. During the 1970s single income households faced higher living costs and more moms went out to work so,
by 1980 50% of women were working outside the home, double 1950s figure. The number now hovers around 70+%.
Being nostalgic about the stay at home mom isn’t a bad thing, but our longing to return to those times triggers needless guilt. “If we just could go back to those times our children would be better off.” In fact the era was not a lost Eden that we somehow poisoned. The stay at home mom ideal was a modern, mostly middle class phenomenon and a short-lived one at that. For many a latchkey kid it never existed.