The image is iconic. A woman in blue workshirt and red polka dot kerchief flexing a bicep. Her message: “We can do it.” A less iconic image from the same era shows a pretty blond saluting from behind a typewriter. The message: “Victory waits on your fingers.”
These images tell a straightforward story. World War II is an epic struggle that must be fought. As brave soldiers leave for battlefronts in Europe and in the Pacific, we on the home front must do our part. War bonds, victory gardens, support for the boys. And for women, this means working outside the home. Rosie the Riveter heads off to the factory to supply the troops with munitions and military equipment. Other women gladly perform those ever-important clerical tasks. Women pitch in until the boys return home and idyllic family life can continue.
Of course, this story is really much more complicated. Yes, the employment of women increased during the war years from 25% to 36% – this increase was especially pronounced among married women, mothers, and minority women. And the work of these women was crucial to the war effort. But there are other ways in which Rosie the Riveter (and Tessa the Typist?) obscure reality. For instance, the “after” picture of women happily returning to domestic bliss is largely false. Many women – especially in factory jobs – were laid off but most wanted to continue working. And the “before” picture of women leaving domesticity to pitch in are also misleading.
The women who would eventually become editors of women’s pages during the 1960s and 1970s are a case in point. Many were born between 1915 and 1925, grew up during the Great Depression, and were young adults at the beginning of World War II. These women went to college, as was typical for middle and upper-middle class women during this time period. We often think “Oh, it was SO unusual for a woman to go to college in those days” … but it wasn’t. At least not that much more unusual than men going to college during that time period. In 1940, more than 41 percent of college graduates in the U.S. were women.[A decade later, that percentage dropped below 24 percent, but that’s a different part of the story.] And these future editors all planned on careers after college – though all of them eschewed the traditional feminine paths of becoming a teacher or nurse.
But the war did affect the careers of these women. Several worked on college newspapers in the early 1940s and their experiences were influenced by the relative absence of men. Vivian Castleberry served as editor of the paper at Southern Methodist University when no men were interested in the post. And the masthead of the Collegiate at Wayne University – for which my mother (Margaret Hyde at that point) was managing editor during the 1942-1943 school year – shows only 3 men in total and women in all of the top roles.
Early work experiences were also shaped by the war. Several women had their first employment at wire services such as the Associated Press and United Press. Marj Paxson worked in a two-woman UP bureau in Lincoln, Nebraska (covering everything but football games and executions), Roberta Applegate was the only woman at the AP bureau in Lansing, Michigan covering state government (it was often assumed that the “a” at the end of her first name was just a typo), my mother was one of two women working at the AP in Detroit, often “manning” the bureau during the overnight shift.
Then the war ended and the men returned. Marj Paxson recalled that this moment had been anticipated at the United Press wire service where she worked:
And of course all of us signed the agreement, waiver, whatever you call it, acknowledging that we had taken a man’s job because he had gone off to the war and agreed to give it up when he came back. Everybody did it … And nobody gave it a second thought.
She further recalls, though, that “when the war was over the man whose job I took did not come back to take it.” Instead, her job was taken by another man with no experience, though she found a job with another wire service. In thinking back on what happened with other women working for the wire services, she recalled, “A few managed to survive but most of them just went back home and became – I don’t know, secretaries or whatever until they got married.”
Dorothy Jurney’s experiences during WWII are also noteworthy. She was looking for employment at the Washington News and was hired by managing editor who didn’t even bother to learn her name before giving her the job. She rose to the rank of assistant city editor, in part because “the two men that I was working with were both expert newspapermen, but they were drunks, and when they got drunk and fell by the wayside, I took on more responsibility.” When the war ended, her experience was similar to Marj Paxson’s – she was replaced by someone less qualified than she:
And I remember John O’Rourke telling me that this young man – Daniel – was coming back. Now he had never been on the news side. “He had been a cub reporter in the sports section,” he told me, “so he doesn’t know anything about editing and he doesn’t know about being a city editor. But Dorothy, I would like you to teach him his job.”
So, the story of “Rosie the Reporter” is a complicated one – a mixed blessing in which doors open and close, and sometimes you even have to assist in the closing. But for most of these women, the fact that it these experiences were mixed did not make them less of a blessing. Reporting and editing during the war gave these women an introduction into the world of journalism that was exciting and compelling – and most of them never turned back.
Thanks to the Women in Journalism Collection at the State Historical Society of Missouri and to the Washington Press Club Oral History Project — These archives of primary source material are invaluable