Tending the Homefront: The Many Roles of Women in the San Francisco Bay Area During World War II

Woman welder in Richmond shipyards.
Woman welder at Richmond Shipyard.

Courtesy Library of Congress via Wikipedia.

Essay by Donna Graves. Graves is an historian and cultural planner based in Berkeley. She served as Project Director for the Rosie the Riveter Memorial.

As growing numbers of men left for military service in the Second World War, government, industry and civic organizations used patriotism, guilt and the prospect of new opportunities and skills to recruit women to the domestic war effort. Woman power was the critical weapon in FDR's "Arsenal of Democracy," which was designed to overwhelm the enemy through superior industrial output. Approximately 12 million women worked in defense industries and support services across the Nation, including shipyards, steel mills, foundries, warehouses, offices, hospitals and daycare centers. Throughout the war, women from all backgrounds, and from all over the country, worked at jobs such as welding, riveting and operating cranes while maintaining their traditional duties as mothers and homemakers.

No region demonstrated these social changes more than the West Coast and the Bay Area, where women's contributions to the war efforts were crucial. The war's enormous social, cultural and economic impacts on women were most visible in the Western United States, which boasted the highest percentage of female industrial workers in the country. Women outnumbered men in the flood of migrants from the South and West who sought Bay Area defense jobs. This was because of economic opportunities associated with defense work, but also the number of women who relocated to be near men in the region's numerous military facilities.

The Bay Area's numerous shipyards hired the greatest number of women defense workers; towards the end of the war, 27 percent of Richmond’s Shipyard workforce was women, and 20 percent of the Moore shipyard in Oakland. Yet like most industries, Bay Area shipyards were reluctant to hire women until labor shortages required it. Women put pressure on defense plants for these well-paying jobs, including a demonstration in front of the Boilermakers' union headquarters in San Francisco. While doors ultimately opened wide to women in many defense factories, not all were recruited as eagerly. African Americans were usually stuck in lower-wage work once they landed a shipyard job, and were more likely to find employment in canneries, railroads and military supply facilities, which paid half of shipyard wages. Still the war moved many black women out of domestic service--as one woman put it "Hitler was the one that got us out of the kitchen."

Most women, regardless of ethnicity or race, also labored under the "double burden" of responsibilities on the job and at home, made all the more difficult by wartime shortages of goods, transportation, childcare and housing. Women defense workers in the Bay Area were more often married than single, and the largest shipyards estimated that up to half of their female workforce had children at home. Most defense plants ran around the clock, and many women worked a six-day week, leaving little time to manage the myriad duties of home and family in their meager "off" hours. For the thousands of women who migrated to the Pacific Coast states, securing adequate housing in West Coast boomtowns was a particularly difficult aspect of an already taxing new life. While much of a woman's overburdened daily life went unremarked, aspects of her duties were rephrased as weapons of the war effort. A woman's patriotic role came to encompass much of her waking activity, from the victory garden she tended, to the meals she planned to keep her family fit. Rationing of foods and necessary household goods made daily housework more arduous, while shopping for meals and clothing took on the air of a strategic campaign as women swapped ration coupons and carefully timed their purchases.

Although "Rosie the Riveter," outfitted in overalls and wielding industrial tools in a defense plant, was the most popular icon of the feminine home front, women's contributions toward allied victory were defined far more broadly than welding ships or riveting bombers. Women drove cabs and delivered mail, they refurbished railroad cars to carry troops and charted the positions of enemy aircraft. Bay Area women also volunteered to support the war effort through a variety of activities and organizations. They worked on war bond drives and "manned" civil defense programs. They promoted community health programs through the Red Cross and entertained troops at Canteens in public buildings that were rededicated to the war effort, such as San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Native Son’s Hall. Hollywood stars like Lena Horne sang for Richmond shipyard workers and the Andrews Sisters entertained soldiers recovering at Oak Knoll Hospital. Female staff at the Berkeley Public Library collected and mailed 11,000 books to servicemen as part of the 1941 national "Victory Book Campaign."

Existing women’s organizations like the YWCA regrouped their efforts in support of home front mobilization; Oakland’s downtown “Y” converted part if its handsome facility into dormitories for service women passing through town, and offered an array of programs including dances for servicemen, forums on "Women in War Production," and Red Cross first aid classes. Newly-formed organizations such as American Women's Voluntary Service enlisted members to drive ambulances, organize mobile kitchens, administer first aid, watch fires and sell war bonds. While work in defense factories was granted higher patriotic status, women's role in boosting morale and organizing communities to cope with wartime problems was deemed critical as well.

Forces in wartime drew people together and pushed them apart. Enormous emphasis was put on preserving and strengthening family bonds as a refuge from and bolster to the strains of wartime. Yet, at the same time, the war disrupted traditional roles within many families. Job opportunities and economic advances for women put intense strain on many Bay Area marriages. Wives and children left behind by servicemen who embarked from the Bay Area for the battlefront formed new household patterns, often incorporating grandparents or friends in similar circumstances. Women and teenage girls lived with far less scrutiny of their behavior during the war, and anxiety about female sexuality became a public concern. Females who flouted conventional morals were called "Victory Girls" or "khacky-whackies" if they were thought to be on intimate terms with enlisted men out of misguided patriotism.

Mothers and children were frequently used as symbols of what the war was being fought to protect, yet they bore the brunt of social upheaval on the home front. Bay Area schoolchildren were enthusiastically enlisted into wartime activities, such as collecting scrap and buying Victory Stamps, but they were also identified as particularly vulnerable victims of wartime social changes. Outcry over "eight-hour orphans" accompanied the remarkable development of Federal-local partnerships to provide daycare for the first time to large numbers of working women. Communities and businesses, like Richmond's Kaiser Shipyards, took advantage of Federal Lanham Act funding to develop groundbreaking childcare programs.

Although popular accounts stress the common bonds holding together those who fought the "good war," the home front was also a place of struggle and conflict. Women faced and fought discriminatory barriers, such as exclusion from workplace unions, even as new opportunities were presented to them. Women of color were met with added discrimination and the incongruity of supporting a war "in defense of freedom" when their own civic freedoms were circumscribed on a daily basis. Japanese American women shared with their husbands, fathers and brothers the wrenching experience of economic loss and of being uprooted from Bay Area communities against their will when forced into relocation camps; yet they shared with other home front women the responsibility of sustaining a nourishing family life under adverse circumstances.Sympathetic women in Berkeley and San Francisco founded efforts to support those interned and bring the conditions in which they lived to public attention. Their work was labeled "unpatriotic" by some, as were women activists in Bay Area pacifist organizations.

As the war wound down, public policy and rhetoric reversed support for women's participation in the labor force. Women, especially women of color, were the first let go by defense plants as government contracts shut down. Arguments against female employment reached a deafening pitch as government, labor unions and businesses worked to grant returning vets priority status and to return gender and familial roles to their prewar "norm." Yet, while many women welcomed the renewed emphasis on their central role in the family, others were not so eager to reclaim domestic responsibilities and prewar conditions. A survey by the U.S. Department of Labor Women's Bureau found that 70 percent of Bay Area women wanted to keep their jobs when peace prevailed, and although one-fifth of working women were their family breadwinners, most found themselves unemployed. The greater independence and opportunities women found during wartime, and increased civil rights envisioned by people of color, meant that the social landscape of the West would never be the same. Women, both migrant and native to the Pacific Coast, did not just "live through" this transformative period, but helped to shape the events and the dramatic changes that left an indelible imprint on the West Coast.

Discover more history and culture by visiting the World War II in San Francisco Bay Area travel itinerary and Women in World War II.

Last updated: January 25, 2024