Review Essay - Rockford's Rosies: World War II Put Illinois Women to Work

Mar 1, 2011

Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
For women of the Greatest Generation — newsman Tom Brokaw’s term for those who served in World War II — the war brought empowerment. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the federal government called America’s men to serve abroad and its women to keep the war machine humming on the home front. Those women — whose life choices mostly were limited to a few “feminine” occupations such as teacher, nurse, homemaker, and perhaps secretary or retail clerk — began working in factories, assembling everything from airplanes to bombs. They were instantly aware that their contributions served their men and their nation. But the government’s encouragement to cross the line into “men’s jobs” opened a new world of possibilities that many carried with them after the war.

Soldiers in faraway, often dangerous and uncomfortable places understood and appreciated those Rosie the Riveters, made iconic by Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post. But an Army corporal serving in France was prompted by a photograph in a Detroit paper sent to a fellow soldier to write to one of the young women identified as attending Rockford College, a small liberal arts school for women south of the Wisconsin border. He and his buddies wondered what, if anything, those presumably advantageous, pampered girls were doing to help the war effort:

“The gist of the discussion was how fortunate you are as a girl, to be going to school, and continuing your normal life with minor unpleasantness, in spite of the war. Of course, no one felt you should endure any undue hardships, but some men were wondering what you are contributing to the war effort and eventual victory.”

There is no record of any answer to the soldiers’ inquiry. However, nearly seven decades later, three Rockford College professors have compiled an impressive list of contributions by both students and faculty during the war years in their book, We Are a College at War: Women Working for Victory in World War II (Southern Illinois University Press, 2010). Mary Weaks-Baxter, Christine Bruun and Catherine Forslund argue that Rockford College represented a microcosm of home-front activism. Broader yet, the authors contend that those young women of the war years were a crucial link in the expansion of women’s rights. They were daughters of those who fought for suffrage — the right to vote — and mothers of daughters — and sons — who fought for economic equality in the feminist movement of the 1970s.

World War II was the first war fought after American women received the right to vote, and more American women contributed to the war effort than ever before or since. “While large numbers of women received payment for their work during the war, even larger numbers worked as volunteers. If controlling money is a mark of gender freedom, so, too, was caregiving a way for women to assert their independence, reaffirm their significance in society and align themselves in roles that could shape the outcome of the war,” the authors say.

Rockford College’s guiding philosophy of “active caregiving,” along with a firm belief in the value of women’s leadership and the importance of women’s contributions to their communities, gained strength with the social activism of one of its alumnae, Jane Addams. Her work at Hull- House in Chicago, meeting the needs of the community on many fronts, demonstrated an underlying principle for the school’s graduates that “a heartfelt empathy for others made a shared democracy a reasonable mechanism by which diverse groups could be included.”

During the war years, Rockford College students volunteered in many jobs: USO clubs (the Army’s Camp Grant was located near Rockford), day care centers for the growing number of women working in factories, Red Cross centers and civil defense offices. They also planted victory gardens and collected money to buy War Bonds.

Some of them also worked in a factory through a program initiated by Rockford College. The Earn and Learn program, the first of its kind in the nation, gave students a way to support the war effort and help pay for their education. Students attended class for three days a week and worked three days a week at Woodward Governor, a local company that produced governors, an essential part in controlling the pitch of an airplane propeller. The component was also used in battleships, cruisers, destroyers, PT boats and submarines.

For others, including faculty, staff and graduates, the call to service meant joining the military. Congress established a women’s branch of the Army in 1942, and by January 1943, all branches of the U.S. military had inducted women into their ranks. Ultimately, about 350,000 women, including nurses, provided backup support during the war, enabling more men to enter combat. Today, more than 200,000 of the nation’s 1.47 million soldiers are women, many of them serving in dangerous jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Following the end of World War II, Rockford College women, along with women across the country, entered a new reality. As servicemen came home to reclaim jobs, say Weaks-Baxter, Bruun and Forslund, women “were increasingly pushed out of the workplace and back into traditionally female occupations and roles.” However, Jean Bethke Elshtain, professor of social and political ethics at the University of Chicago, wrote in her book, Women and War, that the “ideal of postwar domesticity” evolved not because women were “crudely coerced en masse to ‘return’ to the home.” Rather, most American women of the time had never left the home, and those who had still valued “domestic dreams.” The Rockford College professors agree and write that the “ideal of civic housekeeping or social feminism in many ways already prepared women for this retreat back into the home.”

The new Google tool, Ngram, which makes available datasets of more than 500 billion words from 5.2 million books in six languages, shows the progress of the women’s movement in graphic form when the words “men” and “women” are searched. Beginning in 1800, the graphic line showing mention of women in books runs at about a 1-to-7 ratio to men. The line gains some momentum in the 1920s, closing the gap, and then levels off until the 1960s. Use of “women” climbs steeply to a point in the early 1980s, when the line meets, then surpasses the line showing “men” in books. “Women” reaches a high point in the late 1990s.

The graphic line follows American history. A generation after World War II, women started to challenge norms, wanting more from the workplace outside the home. The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan appeared in 1963, and the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. By the early 1970s, the feminist movement was more organized and more vocal. 

Illinois, the first state east of the Mississippi River to give women the vote in 1913, became the focal point of both proponents and opponents in the fight for the 1972 Equal Rights Amendment. With time running out, Illinois was the only northern industrial state that had not ratified the amendment.

Supporters believed that passage in Illinois would ensure ratification, and the proposed language — “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex” — would become the 27th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, in 1982, it was defeated in the Illinois General Assembly when then-House Speaker George Ryan required more than a simple majority to pass it. 

Yet, this state produced Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was born in Chicago and raised in Park Ridge. Standing on the shoulders of all those who fought for women’s equality, she nearly became the Democratic nominee for president. But Illinois also claims Barack Obama, who won the job, and, in 2009, carried on the fight by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Equal Pay Act to once again address the fact of unfair compensation, comparing men with women, in the workplace.

“Addams believed that inclusion and fairness were essential for those who needed care and who needed to have a voice,” write the Rockford College professors, “and it took a collective effort to make these possible. The young women studying at Rockford College during World War II heard the message begun by Addams ... as they responded to student refugees in need, as they helped rebuild shattered postwar Europe, and as they later went to work for equity through the ERA and the Equal Pay Act.”

The efforts of those few “fortunate” girls at Rockford College during the war years were practiced nationwide. Their message of fairness and respect reverberated through the next generation and, as the authors say, “continues to generate momentum.” 

Illinois Issues, March 2011