Mask of Masculinity: American Women’s Dual Behavior During World War II

Kelsey Clinton Vanderbilt University Class of 2018

January 16, 2019


In September of 1939, American political journalist, Norman Cousins, offered the following solution to the Depression, “Simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men.”[1] During the same month, events occurred in Europe that would ultimately make Cousins’ solution infeasible. Hitler’s invasion of Poland set the stage for World War II, which has substantial effects on domestic politics in America. Production and manufacturing increased, political parties united, and previously marginalized groups became major contributors in the American workforce. One of these groups was women, and they occupied a particularly interesting space within World War II-era America. Not only were women expected to replace men who were leaving to go fight in the war, but they were also expected to maintain pre-conflict duties, such as taking care of children, being good wives, and upholding a feminine sexual appeal. Additionally, when the war ended, women were urged to quit their jobs and return home, so that men could resume their natural position at the head of the economy. In this way, American women of World War II lived competing lives of change and stagnation. They were expected to take on the features of masculinity when necessary but discard them when asked. Of course, there were those women that didn’t stand for it and made themselves a name that would go on throughout history, read through this article on the Norwich University blog site on 7 women that became influential and well respected for their contributions during WWII.

Balancing Change and Stagnation

There were many ways that society expected women to take on more masculine roles during World War II, but the majority of them revolved around the military and the workforce. Between 1940 and 1945, over 11 million men left the U.S. to fight in the war.[2] In their wake, they left millions of jobs unfilled. Additionally, the U.S. ramped up war production, creating new employment opportunities on top of the existing vacancies. To fill these spaces, many who previously worked low-paying domestic service jobs (or did not work at all) entered the industrial market. Minorities, women, and the elderly secured jobs they would have been unlikely to get pre-World War II. In 1940, approximately 27.9% of women were part of the U.S. labor force, but by 1944, this number had risen to 36.3%.[3] This represented an increase of 4.6 million women in the U.S. workforce.[4]

Women not only joined the civilian labor force, but many actually joined military branches as well. At the time, women were not allowed to perform in combat roles, but they were able to complete other tasks. Women served as wartime nurses, telephone operators, and dieticians prior to 1943.[5] Then, in 1943, the first women’s military branch—the Women’s Army Corp (WAC)—was established. During World War II, 140,000 women served in WAC, 100,000 served in WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services), and thousands of other women served in various military posts within the Coast Guard, the Marine Corps, and as farrier pilots in WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). In total 350,000 women served in the U.S. military during World War II.[6]

Within the military community, maintenance of femininity was less stressed than in civilian counterparts. The memoirs of Elizabeth R. Pollock, a WAC private, recall how the majority of women in service chose to wear “slacks” most of the time, even when able to dress in standard civilian clothes.[7] She also tells of a conversation between her and a male soldier where she asked him if he missed “long dresses and flowers” on his dance partners. In response, the soldier said “I never argue with luck. Girls are girls, whatever they dress themselves up in.”[8] Mary C. Lyne and Kay Arthur, two former SPARs (the female branch of the Coast Guard), noted that many of their male coworkers would seek them out as confidants, seeing them as equals who could empathize with the struggles of the military.[9]

However, in the civilian sphere, military women often found themselves at the receiving end of questions regarding their roles or expectations to uphold certain feminine behaviors. Lyne and Arthur recalled many negative experiences when they would interact with the public while wearing their uniforms. A common comment they faced urged them to look happy, with one civilian saying, “The only thing I have against women in uniform is that they go around with such frozen faces!”[10] The public expected women in the military to continue upholding civilian standards of femininity, such as wearing dresses and smiling often.[11] Lyne and Arthur also noted that civilian men were particularly loud in letting SPARs know that they “didn’t care for women in uniform.”[12]

As mentioned, the emphasis on maintaining femininity was mostly a civilian phenomenon. Women on the domestic front during the war were expected to take on “men’s work,” but also maintain their pre-war female duties, such as taking care of the home, raising children, and being a good wife or girlfriend (especially if their significant other was serving in the military). While some aspects of their roles in the country were changing and growing, other parts remained static. Women continued to be viewed as homemakers, but now the home they needed to make was the entire country. Women were told to maintain the U.S. in preparation for the return of men. In his 1942 book Calling All Women, Keith Ayling tells the female inhabitants of the U.S. what is expected of them during the war. He explains that American soldiers will return to “a world that has been fashioned for them by the mothers, wives, and sweethearts they left behind” and that ensuring this world is a good one is “the task of a nation’s women.”[13]

Creating Gender Ideals

There were multiple ways in which these ideas of female masculinity and femininity were regulated in America. Government propaganda, magazines, and movies were popular options. Government propaganda included posters created by various military departments or the Office of War Information. When the topic of the poster involved manly ideas—such as factory work or military service—the female subjects were depicted as more masculine. The iconic photo that represents this idea is Rosie the Riveter. In the poster, “Rosie” is flexing her sizable muscles, wearing a handkerchief which holds up her hair, and a denim uniform. While she still appears with long lashes and plucked eyebrows, she is a much more masculine figure than the traditional female depiction. In another poster for SPARS, a female member is shown with her hair tucked behind her hat, wearing a crisp, fitted but not tight, uniform. In the background of the image is a muscular female pioneer holding a shotgun.[14] A final photo shows a woman assembling the cockpit of a plane, she wears a bare face with her hair invisible beneath a handkerchief and a standard uniform. The caption reads, “The More Women at Work the Sooner We Win!”[15] It is important to note that even though the women in these posters held masculine attributes, they still typically possessed some feminine characteristics, like manicured nails, trimmed brows, jewelry, or lipstick. Propaganda needed to maintain the idea that World War II-era women could have masculine traits, but they could not be entirely unfeminine. Preserving this awareness that women were still women regardless of the masculine traits they acquired would make it easier to resume the societal status quo of a male-dominated hierarchy once soldiers returned from war.

Propaganda posters referencing domestic duties—such as rationing or growing “Victory gardens”—also helped uphold this awareness. In contrast to work or military propaganda, the women portrayed in this class of posters possessed a clear feminine appeal. In one poster, a woman in an apron is raising her manicured hand in a pledge to adhere to rationing. Her expression is one of quiet determination, and her face and hair are done up.[16] In another poster about buying war bonds, a woman is shown striding forward with the shadow of a soldier behind her. The caption above her head reads, “She’s Ready, Too.” Though the woman is drawn mid-action, she is still wearing a dress and heels, carrying a purse, and her long blonde hair flows over her shoulders.[17] The theme continues for other government propaganda posters with domestic subjects. The women are depicted as very feminine with their hair down and wearing dresses or skirts. In many pictures, the women shown are in reference to men. One poster presents an older woman with the caption, “Won’t you help bring my son home?” while another depicts a young lady hugging a soldier as he leaves for war.[18] In almost all cases where the poster includes a male reference point, the woman shown is highly feminized.

Pop culture such as magazines and films also took part in developing the role of women in World War II America. One film company in particular, Warner Brothers, became especially active in painting America’s perceptions of women in wartime. Warner Bros. earned the nickname “The Roosevelt Studio” due to the owners’ close relationship with the president and willingness to insert politics into their films.[19] Roosevelt and Warner Bros. wanted a way to mobilize American support for a war the country was not currently involved in, and they turned to movies to do so. One of these films was the studio’s 1940 release, The Fighting 69th, which depicted the semi-true story of a WWI unit. While the original script had female characters, the directors chose to not include any women in the final film.[20] Women were left out of The Fighting 69th because the directors believed women in a war movie made the men look too vulnerable and war look too harsh, which would not serve to generate domestic support for American involvement in World War II.[21] War films like this served to create the idea that combat was not a place for women and was a field better left to hyper-masculine men.

War, however, was not the only film subject that helped portray the ideal of American female behavior. Later movies, like the 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, used post-war settings and storylines to illustrate how American women should behave. The Best Years of Our Lives told the story of three veterans returning home from war and trying to readjust to civilian living. One of the veterans’ wives, Marie, worked to support herself while her husband served in the war. When he returns, she has no desire to give up her independence and wants to continue working.[22] The film depicts her longing for independence as a personality flaw, and Marie’s husband ends up leaving her for a more suitable and subservient wife.[23] Postwar films like The Best Years of Our Lives reminded women that though the war enabled them to take on some masculine traits—like working in a factory—once it was over, they needed to return to their veil of feminine behavior.

Magazines also played a part in formulating American gender ideals. Question and answer columns in women’s magazines included tips on how to live well under rationing programs, how to successfully grow a “victory garden,” and how to keep family morale high while fathers were off at war.[24] Grete Haentjens of Lehigh University writes that magazines during World War II contained four main themes regarding women: irrespective of what job a woman did, she was still feminine, war technology would benefit women in the future by providing household appliances, women could only handle male roles for short periods of time, and finally that a woman’s most important role during World War II was to be beautiful and appealing to men.[25] This emphasis on desirability gave birth to an icon of World War II: the pin-up. The pin-up was typically a woman (real or animated) who oozed sex appeal and femininity. She had a perfect hour-glass figure, long curled hair, and pouty red lips. She would often be depicted scantily clad and became strongly associated with the U.S. military. The pin-up was painted on the sides of fighter planes, had her photo carried in soldiers’ wallets all around the world, and (when she was a real person) acted as overseas entertainment for servicemen. The pin-up became a representation of the women soldiers left behind in the states, a personified ideal to give men encouragement and a reason to continue fighting.

Propaganda and pop culture did not limit themselves to creating ideals for women to seek. They also shaped the ideal man, with which women were often portrayed against. The perfect American man during World War II was well-muscled, strong-jawed, hyper-masculine, and a soldier. Government propaganda was especially prominent in declaring what men in America should be like. The men in most government posters are young and white, well-built with a square chin. They’re depicted in action: running, shooting, or carrying heavy equipment. One image shows a soldier throwing a grenade and yelling, “God help me if this is a dud.”[26] The caption below the image reads, “His life is in your hands.” In other posters, the men carry large shells for naval guns, positioned not-so-subtlety at their waist, giving the shells an even more phallic quality than already suggested by their shape.[27] The men in these pictures are shirtless and glistening, creating a homoerotic feel to the images.[28] Very few men are illustrated as injured or hurt from the war, and when they are, the wounds are mostly superficial.[29] In rare instances when the wounds are more serious, the injured man is shown with a caption that demonstrates he will continue to work hard, even with his injury.[30] For example, a poster depicting a sailor missing a leg includes the caption, “Take it from me brother, we’ve still got a big job to do!”[31] The men shown to America in posters and advertisements were strong and handsome, serving their country in whatever capacity they could, but with a clear hierarchy that placed active military duty at the top as the most useful way to serve.

“Very few men are illustrated as injured or hurt from the war, and when they are, the wounds are mostly superficial.”

A (Partial) Return to the Status Quo

These gender ideals that emphasized hyper-masculine men and dependably-feminine women shaped gender roles in America after World War II. The expectations for women post-war were relatively simple: resume the “feminine mystique” by returning to their rightful places in the home.[32] Propaganda and advertisement switched from promoting women at work to promoting women returning to the home. The switch was made easier by the sustained highlighting of feminine traits throughout the war, even in propaganda momentarily encouraging masculine occupations. Companies sought to entice women to return home by using the newfound American production power and increased public wealth to create desirable consumer goods that a woman could use in her house to make her life easier, such as washing machines, microwave ovens, and coffee makers.[33] Additionally, companies participated in mass firings of women workers around the country.[34]

However, not all women workers were fired from their positions, many left willingly, while others held onto their jobs. The women who voluntarily returned home often did so because of the renewed American emphasis on families. Furthermore, the distribution of G.I. benefits enabled World War II soldiers to buy homes, attend college, and develop a financially stable life. This relative wealth and security enticed many women to get married and reap the benefits of the G.I. bill they otherwise could not access as civilians.[35] Some women were able to keep their World War II jobs or switch into different careers deemed more suitable for women, such as “clerical work.”[36] While, post-World War II was not kind to the newly claimed independence of many women, progress was not completely lost. The labor force participation rate for women in 1950 was 33.9%, which is not as high as in 1944, but higher than pre-World War II levels.[37]

World War II impacted every facet of life in the U.S. Thousands of men left their homes and families to fight in a war overseas, and American women suddenly found themselves at the forefront of the domestic production machine, working jobs previously reserved for men. This change required the creation of a new framework of public thought that “simultaneously acknowledged that women were capable of filling jobs requiring “male” characteristics” while reserving “essential features of the feminine role.”[38] To do this, American entities like the government, the military, and large corporations embarked on a propaganda campaign using posters, magazines advertisements, and movies. As a result, American women were empowered to join the workforce and take on previously masculine responsibilities. However, they were simultaneously expected to maintain their feminine appeal and resume their “proper” positions as housewives and mothers when men returned from war. This role dichotomy framed the female experience in the U.S. during and immediately after World War II, creating a maze of behavioral expectations which American women were expected to navigate.


[1] M.L. Bostic, “Unsuitable Job for a Woman? Women at Work, Status and Issues,” Journal of Industrial Technology 15.1 (1999): 2-6. Print.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, Labor Force Series (D 1-682), Series D 1-10 Labor Force and Its Components: 1900 – 1947. (accessed March 19, 2018).

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, Labor Force Series (D 1-682), Series D 29-41 Labor Force by Age and Sex 1890 – 1970, (accessed March 19, 2018).

[4] U.S. Census Bureau, Labor Force Series (D 1-682), Series D 49-62 Marital Status of Women in the Civilian Labor Force: 1890 – 1970, (accessed March 19, 2018).

[5] Judy B. Litoff and David C. Smith, American Women in a World at War: Contemporary Accounts from World War II (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997), 35.

[6] Ibid., 36.

[7] Elizabeth R. Pollock, “Yes Ma’am!: The Personal Papers of a WAAC Private, “ in American Women in a World at War: Contemporary Accounts from World War II, ed. Judy Litoff and David C. Smith (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997), 39.

[8] Pollock, “The Personal Papers,” 45.

[9] Mary C. Lyne and Kay Arthur, “Three Years Behind the Mast,” in American Women in a World at War: Contemporary Accounts from World War II, ed. Judy Litoff and David C. Smith (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997), 63.

[10] Ibid., 60.

[11] Ursula Hess, Reginald B. Adams Jr, and Robert E. Kleck, “Facial Appearance, Gender, and Emotion Expression,” Emotion 4, no. 4 (2004): 378-388

[12] Lyne and Arthur, “Three Years Behind the Mast,” 63.

[13] Keith Ayling, Calling All Women, (New York: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1942), 200.

[14] J. Valentin, SPARS – Serve with Women’s Reserve – U.S. Coast Guard. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[15] The More Women at Work, the Sooner We Win, War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[16] F.G. Cooper, Keep the Home Front Pledge. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[17] She’s Ready, Too – Buy War Bonds. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[18] He Volunteered for Submarine Service. War Posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Agency, 1944. Time: World War II Posters. Still Image.

[19] Rochelle S. Miller, “No Women! Only Brothers: Propaganda, Studio Politics, Warner Bros., and The Fighting 69th (1940),” in Heroism and Gender in War Films, ed. Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Jakub Kazecki, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 54.

[20] Ibid., 54.

[21] Ibid., 57.

[22] Lesley C. Pleasant, “The Postwar Anxiety of the American Pin-Up: William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (!946),” in Heroism and Gender in War Films, ed. Karen A. Ritzenhoff and Jakub Kazecki, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 68.

[23] Ibid., 74.

[24] Jane Waller and Michael Vaughan-Rees, The Role of Women’s Magazines, (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987).

[25] Grete Haentjens, “Her Duty to be Beautiful: Feminine Ideals in Magazine Advertising During World War II” Lehigh University Department of History, no. 507, (1998): 1.

[26] John Vickery, God Help Me if this is a Dud. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[27] Keep ‘Em Fighting. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. The National Archives, Powers of Persuasion Collection. Still Image.

[28] McClelland Barclay, Man the Guns – Join the Navy. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1942. The National Archives, Powers of Persuasion Collection. Still Image.

[29] Adolph Treidler, Care is Costly. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1945. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[30] Christina Jarvis, The Male Body at War: American Masculinity during World War II, (Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004): 88.

[31] Howard Scott, Take it from me Brother. War posters. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943. Hennepin County Library, World War II Propaganda Poster Collection. Still Image.

[32] Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II, (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987): 103

[33] Maureen Honey, “The “Womanpower” Campaign: Advertisement and Recruitment during World War II,” A Journal of Women’s Studies, 6 no. ½ (1980): 54.

[34] Marie Santana, “From Empowerment to Domesticity: The Case of Rosie the Riveter and the World War II Campaign,” Sociol, no. 23 (2016).

[35] Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009): 170-172.

[36] Honey, “The “Womanpower” Campaign,” 54.

[37] U.S. Census Bureau, Labor Force Series (D 1-682), Series D 29-41 Labor Force by Age and Sex 1890 – 1970, (accessed March 19, 2018).

[38] Honey, “The “Womanpower” Campaign,” 50.

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