During World War II, the drafting of men into the military gave women the unprecedented opportunity to enter heavy industry. The shortage of labor in factories producing war goods prompted urgent appeals by government and selective service officials to women to go to work to help win the war. Many women not only became their family’s breadwinner, but also vital elements in the final victory.
Gen. Guy N. Henninger, director of Nebraska’s Selective Service system, prefaced his 1943 plea for more women in the state to enter war goods production with the observation that the challenge then was comparable to the one faced by women on the homesteading frontier. Speaking to the Nebraska State Historical Society, he said that “frantic appeals for labor” from the government and industry had not been fully heeded.
Henninger explained specifically the nature of the difficulty: “One of our great problems in obtaining manpower to meet the needs of the armed forces is the removal from important industry of men qualified for military service. Wartime assembly plants sprang up quickly and immediately drew to themselves thousands of young men-alert, ambitious, smart young men.
“When these young men were needed for the armed forces, the management of assembly plants promptly declared: ‘You can’t take these men or you will choke off our vital contribution to the war.’ This contention is valid in a certain degree, but impartial industrial experts insist that most assembly plants can operate efficiently with seventy per cent womanpower. Yielding reluctantly to the pressure of the need for men in the armed forces, some eastern assembly plants are now producing very effectively with half of their employees women.
“In our own state, I am sorry to report, the number of women in our largest wartime assembly plant is only twenty-five per cent of the total. Why isn’t it higher? Before we reach any erroneous conclusions about the shortcomings of management, let us consider our women. Many of them have forsaken the comforts of convenience to meet the challenge of war, but far more of them have not.
“Estimates from the War Manpower Commission indicate that there are only about thirty thousand Nebraska women actively engaged in what can be considered war industry, or industry directly connected with the war effort–and that includes agriculture and the processing of agricultural products. For every one of these thirty thousand women, there are more than three Nebraska men in the armed forces.
“I fully realize, of course, that there is no Selective Service to place women in war production work, and that it is not surprising therefore to find three times as many men in the armed forces as we have women in war production. This ratio merely shows that we are not making the best use of our womanpower: it in no way reflects upon the patriotism of our fine womenfolk.”
“If the needs of the armed forces for manpower continue as it appears that they will, there is not the slightest doubt but that thousands of Nebraska women who are now either working in jobs unrelated to the war effort, or who are not working at all, must step forward to fill important places in agricultural and industrial production.”
Married women who did war work usually continued their household duties as well. After 1945 most gave up their jobs and resumed their prewar roles as housewives after men were once again available to fill their old jobs.