World History 2 228 - 13.3.2 Women Mobilized for War

The status and roles of women underwent seismic shifts around the world because of the war. In belligerent nations, with so many men sent to the far-flung fronts, women represented a large available pool of labor that could be tapped, and they increased their participation in their nation’s economies significantly.

In 1939, women made up 37 percent of the German workforce, but because the Nazis encouraged them to be homemakers and resisted recruiting them to work, their participation in labor declined between 1939 and 1941. In 1942 when Germany geared up for war, however, more women went into the factories, and their share of the workforce climbed to about 50 percent. From its initial rise to power, the German Nazi regime had also promoted schemes to increase marriages and births, for which economic incentives were offered, while birth control was outlawed.

By 1945, women in the Soviet Union constituted 55 percent of the total workforce. In addition, about 800,000 women served in frontline combat positions, mostly as medical workers. Lyudmila Pavlichenko was a sniper credited with killing 309 enemies. The Soviet women’s air unit called the Night Witches conducted more than twenty-three thousand bombing runs during the war. The war years led to the death of as many as twenty-five million Soviet citizens. Therefore, the role of motherhood also gained new importance during the war. In July 1944, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet created the Order of Maternal Glory and the title of Mother-Hero. There were financial incentives for having two or more children.

The Japanese also rewarded women for having children. The 1940, National Eugenics Law prohibited abortion or sterilization for any reason except eugenics (a discredited strategy that focused on cultivating desirable characteristics in a population). Women were encouraged to marry young, have many children, and fulfill their natural role as mothers. Those who did were rewarded, but women aged eighteen to twenty-five were also conscripted into the labor force beginning in 1943.

The Japanese military held views about the needs of men and the subservience of women that led to a vast system of forced prostitution and sexual slavery. Korean and Chinese women were the first to suffer, but the system spread wherever Japanese troops were, victimizing perhaps as many as 400,000 women from China, Korea, and elsewhere in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. This type of treatment helped spur many women to embrace the activism encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party and to celebrate anti-Japanese actions. The nature and scope of the crimes against these “comfort women” remain controversial long after the war.

The Past Meets the Present

Uncomfortable Controversies

In the early 1990s, surviving Korean victims of sexual exploitation by the Japanese military went to court in Japan demanding recognition of their plight and compensation from the government. Through years of litigation, the Japanese court system consistently rejected their claims. The issue was revived in 2016 when twelve surviving “comfort women” (as they were called) entered South Korean courts to seek justice. In January 2021, the Seoul Central District Court rendered a decision in their favor and ordered the Japanese government to pay them $91,800 each. The Japanese government again rejected this ruling, and people on the political right in Japan, including former prime minister Shinzo Abe, argued that the women had not been forced into anything.

The charges leveled by the women were only one of the issues remaining from World War II with which Japan has yet to come to terms. Both while in office and afterward, Japanese prime ministers have paid visits to Yasukuni Shrine to honor soldiers who died in World War II, including men convicted of war crimes such as Hideki Tojo. Japanese history textbooks, which must be approved by the Ministry of Education, largely ignore the existence of the comfort women and have downplayed or denied the role of the Japanese military in forcing civilians on the island of Okinawa to commit suicide rather than surrender after the U.S. victory there in March 1945.

  • Why do you think these issues still exist?
  • Why might the Japanese government wish to deny or downplay actions of Japanese troops during the war?

In 1941, all British women between eighteen and fifty years old were declared available for national service. The Women’s Land Army recruited eighty thousand women for agricultural work on Britain’s farms, and 400,000 served in some other form of civil defense. Eventually, eight million women participated in the British war effort.

Encouraged by their government to think of all jobs as war jobs, six and a half million American women entered the labor force during the conflict and made up 50 percent of it by the war’s end. Three million members of the Women’s Land Army planted and harvested food. Women also took their places behind desks in hundreds of thousands of government and office jobs and in industries where few women had made inroads in the past. By 1944, for instance, the number of women in the banking industry had doubled to about 130,000 employees. The now-famous “Rosie the Riveter” poster expressed the commitment and competence of women stepping into industrial jobs to replace the men who had gone to war (Figure 13.16). Nearly 350,000 women also served in some branch of the U.S. military during the war.

This is a color poster of a woman who is flexing her right arm while her left arm is pulling up the sleeve on her right arm. The woman wears a red scarf with white polka dots on her head, brown curly hair peeks out from the top of the scarf, she has brown eyes and red lips, and wears a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up. Her expression is serious. The top of the poster says, “We Can Do It!” The bottom of the poster says, “WAR PRODUCTION CO-ORDINATING COMMITTEE.”
Figure 13.16 The famous poster of “Rosie the Riveter” symbolized the many women in the United States who were rolling up their sleeves to serve the nation during the war. (credit: “We can do it!” by U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax