For Every Fighter a Woman Worker: American Women during World War I
April 19, 2011
When the U.S.A. entered World War One in April 1917, it lost no time in producing many more propaganda posters than any other single nation. These encompassed recruitment to the various armed services, raising of war finance via the hugely successful liberty bond issues, and advertising for the support of women workers in munitions plants and building aircraft in large hangars. Women had to work for paid employment for the sake of their families.
Not only did women have to keep "the home fires burning," but they also took on voluntary and paid employment that was diverse in scope and showed that women were highly capable in diverse fields. There is little doubt that this expanded view of the role of women in society changed the outlook of what women could do and their place in the workforce. Although women were still paid less than men, women's equality was starting to arise as women received two-thirds of the typical pay for men.
In this poster, graphic designer Adolph Triedler (1886-1981), encourages women to do war work. The poster was sponsored by the United War Work Campaign which brought together seven organizations--the YMCA, the YWCA, the American Library Association, the War Camp Community Service, the Knights of Columbus, the Jewish Welfare Board, and the Salvation Army--into one large funding drive charged with raising over $170 million for the war in 1918.
Treidler also encourages Americans to care for the women workers through the YWCA. The Young Women Christian Association was also concerned with the needs of the war. There was a great increase in the duties of employment agencies of the YWCA because of the war. Training women to take the place of the men was necessary. Further advancement in the development of women’s work was strengthened by the withdrawal of millions of men from the American industry.
By late 1918, so many men had gone to war that women had to take over their jobs. Labor unions fought hard against hiring women in factories. Women were paid less than men. As well, women worked in conditions that were sometimes dangerous and unhealthy. In munitions plants, acid fumes from high explosives damaged workers’ lungs and turned their skin bright yellow. Thousands of women worked long hours filling shells with explosives. Accidental explosions were always a risk. Little effort was made to ease the women's change from working in the home to the workplace. Few employers provided childcare for working mothers or even set aside rest rooms for female workers.
Despite the dangers and inconveniences, one historian of women, Gail Braybon, claims that for many women the war was "a genuinely liberating experience," that made them feel useful as citizens, and also gave them the freedom and the wages only men had enjoyed so far.
"For Every Fighter a Woman Worker", 1918. Adolph Treidler, New York. Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, A2003/030/8.
"Munitions Workers", ca. 1918. National Archives Photo, courtesy of the Indiana War Memorial.