World War II was the first war in which women were involved in large numbers as active participants on the combat zone and on the homefront.
Women had first been officially organised as part of a war effort a generation earlier, in WW I. By the beginning of WW II, Britain, Canada and other allied countries had women's auxiliaries attached to their armed forces. When the United States was brought into the War after the attack on Pearl Harbor, it was recognised that a war on two fronts would put pressure on available manpower. Women were thus encouraged, and later required, to go to work to fill the gaps left by men who had gone to war.
Each branch of the U.S. armed forces soon created its own women's auxiliary or women's service (e.g. the WAC, the WAVES, WASPS, and so on). Munitions factories and other industries were staffed by women, and women replaced men in ordinary jobs (as civil servants, telephonists, bus drivers, to name a few) as the need grew. This was often women's first taste of waged work and of being valued in the marketplace. It would take all the resources of the country in the post-war period to convince (or rather, browbeat) women to relinquish their newly found independence.
Women were present in the war zones both as part of the armed forces, as staff with the Red Cross and other organisations, and as reporters and photographers. Women already famous as reporters, such as Janet Flanner, Dorothy Thompson, Martha Gellhorn, Helen Kirkpatrick, and as photographers, such as Margaret Bourke White, Toni Frissell, and Lee Miller, fought for and gained the right to observe the war for various newspapers and radio networks back in the USA.
In Europe, women had no choice but to be involved in the war. Most women endured the war as women have always endured war: as victims, but some joined the resistance movements, some were active in hiding Jewish and other refugees and smuggling them to safety, and some served as spies. Their heroism was recognised after the war, when women such as Josephine Baker (an African American living in Paris who worked for the French Resistance) were honoured by their countries.
World War II saw women involved in all spheres of public life. Despite largely successful efforts to put them in their place after the war, women never fully returned to their previous status, and the memory of their war experiences, be it as "Rosie the Riveter," as Wacs or army nurses, or as substitutes doing the work of men, helped lead to their discontent in the late 1950s and the explosion of feminism in the 1960s.
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