Or, Rosie the Riveter reconsidered.
In this lively, smart, sometimes contrarian work of social history, New York Times writer Yellin explores the manifold roles of women in WWII: nurses, musicians, athletes, pilots, homemakers, factory workers, political activists, even prostitutes. In doing so, she turns up intriguing observations about a society turned on its head by the all-encompassing conflict. When war came, she writes of one such transformation, “warnings to young women started coming with a fury . . . from parents, from the clergy, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines” urging them not to give in to the temptations of wartime romance—for why pin your happiness to a boy who might soon die? The young women didn’t listen, and “despite the naysaying, 1.8 million couples married in 1942, a huge increase from the year before.” When the men did go off to war, the women remade the home front, enduring plenty of psychic shocks along the way (such as having to go back to living with their parents in order to economize). They faced great opposition, and their contributions were not always fairly rewarded: though the Army and Navy offered equal pay in plants they controlled, most civilian contractors paid women less than men (“by 1944,” Yellin writes, “the average weekly wage for female factory workers was $31 . . . while it was $55 a week for men”). Many jobs were not open to women at all, especially those close to combat zones; only about half of Army nurses went overseas, whereas fewer than one in ten Navy nurses did so until late in the war. In a superb moment among many high points, Yellin relates the strange and sad tale of “Tokyo Rose.” In another, she traces the invention of “Betty Crocker.” In still another, she revisits the moment when the single vote against declaration of war on Japan was cast in Congress: “As a woman,” said Rep. Jeanette Rankin, “I can’t go to war and I refuse to send anyone else.”
A superb contribution to the literature of WWII.