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Woman’s Place After the War (1944)

Woman’s Place After the War

by Eleanor Roosevelt, an article in Click, August, 1944

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt gestures while speaking
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

“Will women want to keep their jobs after the war is over?” When I asked Miss Mary Anderson of the Bureau of Women in Industry, she told me it all boils down to economic necessity. Married women usually keep their jobs only when they have real need for money at home. This, of course, does not mean that women who take up some kind of work as a career will not stay in that work if they like it, whether they are married or single.

Let us analyze this whole question of women who work. Our attitude in this country has always been that any individual is more worthwhile if he pays his way in the world. We even have a little contempt for a woman who is nothing but an ornament.

Of late years since we have counted success so largely in the amount of money that people earned, it has become more and more natural for women to feel that if they actually were working to their full capacity, they must have recognition in the same coin as the male members of their families, or they would not be considered successful. An ever-growing number of young women in every walk of life are taking jobs as they finish school or college, but the main job of the average woman in our country still is to marry and have a home and children.

I surmise that the major occupation of a married woman in this country at the close of the war will be what it has always been—the care of the family as long as the family requires her care. There will always be exceptions, of course, as when a woman must take on the burden of work outside the home to supplement what the man earns, or, if the man cannot work, even must assume the place of the head of the family and earn a living for the household.

Many women, because of the urge to help their country and their own men during the war, will have acquired skills—skills which they will be able to use in the future. But I do not think they will use them if they have families and homes calling them back to a different kind of existence.

Recently, I saw women who drove long distances and worked long hours in a shipyard in New England. Most of them had made temporary arrangements for the care of their homes and children, and were working with their husbands if their husbands had not gone to war, so as to pay the mortgage on the farm, buy certain things long coveted which would make life easier in the future, or lay aside some money which would give the children some special advantages. They knew the work was temporary and feared they would never have the opportunity to achieve certain desires if they did not take advantage of the present need for workers.

Women’s Work Prospects Depend Upon Job Availability

The first question that will be faced in the postwar period is simply to what extent jobs are available. The first obligation of government and business is to see that every man who is employable has a job, and that every woman who needs work has it. A woman does not need a job if she has a home and a family requiring her care and a member of the household is earning an adequate amount of money to maintain a decent standard of living. If, however, there is a margin of energy left in men or women and they want to put it into bettering their standard of living, it seems to me that they should have the opportunity. We should struggle to gear our economy to a place where we can give all people who desire to work, whether full-time or part-time, a chance to work on something which gives them creative satisfaction.

From my point of view, there is no justification whatsoever for labor leaders to oppose the employment of women at the present time wherever they are needed. Foresight is valuable, but foresight that dreads to meet a present situation because there may be some difficulty in the future shows a lack of confidence in the intelligence and ability of human beings to cope with new situations.

There is one point, however, upon which I think labor leaders have a right to insist: women should not come into any labor group and allow themselves to be used at present or in the future as a body for keeping down the wages of men, either because they can live on less or because they, being unorganized, have never understood the need to stand together with any group in order to help the group.

A girl living at home and having few expenses may be able to accept, let us say, $10 a week for her work, using that money only for her own personal needs. Her employer will say to a man, “We can use girls in this job, therefore we do not need you; but if you want the job, you can have it at $10 a week.” If the man can find no other job, he may be forced to take the one for $10 a week, which means that his family will live at a very low standard. And this will be the fault of the girl who did not understand that she was part of a big labor group and that she had to consider the good of the whole body.

So, I think labor leaders have a right to insist that women, as long as they are in the labor market, should be part of the organized labor movement and should not permit themselves to be used as competition for men to the advantage of unscrupulous employers.

 Children of Working Mothers Must Have Adequate Care

A certain number of women, both in the professions and in skilled and unskilled trades, may not marry. But if they do, they must either subordinate their desires for work outside the home, or make arrangements which will be adequate for proper care of the home and children.

Rarely can anyone replace a mother, but there are some women who are not gifted with children and resent having to do the work of the home. In that case, it may sometimes be better to find someone who loves to do that job, and release the mother for a different kind of work. She will probably be a better mother and a better companion for her husband when she is home is she does work she enjoys. However, such cases are rare.

As I said in the beginning, whether women remain in the labor market or not will be, as it always has been, mainly a question of economic necessity.

Source: Roosevelt, Eleanor, “Woman’s Place After the War,” an Article in Click, (August 1944): 17, 19, New Deal Network, (September 30, 2014).