Back in the days of old (the late 1930s, to be exact), a woman’s place was in the home. A little girl was taught from day one that her role in life was to grow up and find a man to marry, to give him children, and to look beautiful and poised throughout. Advice to single ladies in this era speaks volumes to how a woman was supposed to act; as a beautiful vessel, with no opinion other than what her male escorts were likely to approve of.
Don’t believe me? Check out these pearls of wisdom from 1938, just before the dawn of World War II. Our dating lady of these times was told that she must never look bored, even if she was. That she was never to talk to a man while dancing, because “when a man is dancing, he wants to dance,” and that any public display of affection would “humiliate and embarrass him.”
For the ladies who were lucky enough to secure the affections of their male escorts, there were a whole new set of rules to follow. Marital bliss meant that they had to create a safe haven for their husband to return to after he’d been on his manly adventures out in the world. Women had to have dinner on the table at the exact moment their hard-worked husband walked through the door. Ladies were told to act a little happier than they felt, and to make sure that they “freshened up” before their husband came home, so their unsuspecting husbands wouldn’t be subjected to seeing their ghastly faces au naturel. They were told that even if they had lots of things to talk about, they must refrain as “his topics of conversation are more important than yours”.
And once they had given their husband the babies he so deserved, our heroines had to make sure that the children were quiet and that the little treasures “acted the part.” Women were told that they must know their place, that even if their husband stayed out all night, they must never complain, that they must never question his integrity because “you have no right to question him.” Sounds just delightful, right?
And then in September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, and everything changed.
The aggressiveness of Germany’s campaign, the domino of countries involved, the battles being fought on so many fronts—all this meant that more and more men were needed for the front lines.
But front lines don’t exist in a vacuum—they need army supplies, they need people to carry messages, they need ammunition. And so the military looked around for who could fill those roles, far and wide. And eventually, they realized that the answer had been in their kitchen the whole time, poised and waiting to serve a perfectly timed dinner. To win this war, they needed women to provide the backbone of the war effort.
Government propaganda shifted from focusing on a woman’s duty as serving her husband, to serving the country. So governments around the world called for women. Jobs opened up in pockets on all fronts of the war effort, starting from the run-of-the-mill “women’s jobs” like nursing and cooking, and eventually widening out to roles that previously had called for the requisite man-parts to do, like driving tractors and assembling guns.
And women signed up in droves. Women were working in factory lines, they were working as clerks, delivering messages between camps. They were working as spies, engineers, cooks, seamstresses, loggers and more. They were driving trucks, they were swinging spades on farms. Women were working in hospitals, caring for the wounded. Women, in short, were everywhere.
And then in 1945, the war ended. In Britain, married women were sent home earlier than their single compatriots, so that they could “prepare the home.” And things seemingly went back to normal.
Women were shoehorned back into their previous domain: their homes. For many, this would have been a welcome reprieve, a return to the settled days of old. A time when they could play with their children, look after their husbands, to create a loving family home. But for others, it wasn’t so simple. These women had had a taste of the man’s world for half a decade. During the war, women had been able to spend as they pleased, to talk about whatever they chose, to work in jobs that had given them a brief peep into how the other half lived. For these women, who had tasted freedom and had it taken from them, this shift was like trying to get a square peg into a round hole. These women just didn’t fit any more.
One of the only roles that was never filled by women during World War II was fighting in combat. Women were trained to use guns, but they were forbidden from shooting them. Women lived alongside men in the battlefield. Women were subject to the same paltry rations. They too shivered with cold in their thin tents at night. They worried for their loved ones at home, and faced the very real possibility of impending death. Women spent long days and night serving the war effort.
But these women weren’t allowed to fire a gun. And if you can’t fire a gun, you can’t win a medal for valor or bravery. So these women, who had filled such a vital role for the war effort, weren’t given the heroine status they deserved.
So, in place of medals, I want to thank you for giving us something that is worth so much more: for planting the seeds of change.
Thank you for fighting the good fight. For getting your hands dirty working on farms, for working so tirelessly on ammunition lines, for rationing your food at home, for spending your evenings knitting socks that would have brought some joy to lonely soldiers in strange lands. For typing the important memos that were needed to keep the armies running, and keeping them winning. For looking after the broken soldiers when they came home. For comforting the younger generations, when they asked where their fathers were.
For stepping into roles that you had been told from birth were outside your capabilities. For proving to the world once and for all that women are fully capable of doing any kind of work. For planting the idea that there might be more to life than being a glorified house elf. For creating the sparks that erupted into the women’s rights movement of the 1960s. For raising the daughters and sons who carried on the work you began. For starting us all on the slow journey of creating a culture where women are seen as people, not inferior beings.
For your bravery, for your valor. For your compassion, your patriotism, for doing what needed to be done.
To the ladies of World War II: Thank you.[divider] [/divider]
The photo used above coincidentally enough is of the granddaughter of a woman who was part of the Women’s WAVE and was a Navy gunner in WWII. She wrote a book about her experience that you can find here.
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