How Women Changed the American Workforce

Women’s Campaign Fund

We all know “Rosie the Riveter”as an American icon. Flexing her muscle with the declaration that “We Can Do It!,” Rosie was the star of a campaign to recruit female workers for defense industries during World War II.

Filling the gap

When men went to war, women filled the gaping hole in the U.S. workforce, changing it forever. More than six million women took wartime jobs in factories, three million volunteered with the Red Cross, and more than 200,000 served in the military. Overall, the female percentage of workers increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent between 1940 and 1945.

The war may have ended in 1945, but the contributions of these women planted the seeds for a balanced workforce in the years that followed.

Keeping secrets

Beyond industrial work in World War II, we know now that thousands more women were performing classified and secret jobs — missions they hid from their families, friends, and neighbors during the war and even throughout their entire lives.

Julia Potter, now Julia Parsons, was one of those women. On March 2 in Pittsburgh, she celebrated her 100th birthday, honored by a parade of local police and firefighters, veterans, and current service members, along with a virtual party online.

The festivities were not only to celebrate her long life but also what she did for all of us during the war.

Making WAVES

Julia served in the U.S. Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). At the end of the training, an instructor asked, “Does anybody here know German?” Julia raised her hand, courtesy of two years of high school German, and was whisked to Washington, DC, to become one of the “Code Girls” — the women who helped in top-secret intelligence work against the German and Japanese war efforts.

Julia kept her role secret for more than 50 years. In 1997, when she learned the program had been declassified, she could finally tell her husband, whom she met during World War II, what she was really doing when she had to cancel those dates with him. She shared her secret also with her three children, eight grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren. Eventually, her story found its way to the wider community and continues to provide “We Can Do It” inspiration.

Cracking the codes

Whether they were keeping secrets or not, many women like Julia found their lives meaningfully transformed by their work in World War II. Their service built confidence, ignited independence, and expanded choices.

As we reflect on Women’s History Month, we also rivet ourselves to a true turning point: finishing the jobs these women started. We commit to #5050x2028, or roughly half women and half men in elected offices nationwide by 2028. Why? As Julia and her colleagues have shown us, when we put the whole team to work, we are stronger, more innovative, and better able to crack the codes that will move us toward a more inclusive future.

©2021 Women’s Campaign Fund

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