Next To Love: Women and the War

13 October 2011

Ellen Feldman - The Female Genii Who Would Not Go Back in the Bottle

 

The party line during and after World War II was that the Rosie the Riveters, government girls, and other women who took over men’s jobs could not wait to hand them back to returning veterans and go home to their cooking, cleaning, and sewing.  But at the war’s end, many of the women were far from eager to relinquish their work.  Most were forced to resign.  Some had even had to promise before taking the job to leave quietly once the men came back. 

The potential for social unrest after the war was enormous.  Sixteen million men were taking off their uniforms, getting back into civvies, and looking for work.  Compared to the possibility of mass unemployment and riots by men, women’s discontent was barely a blip on the radar screens.  Nonetheless, some in industries that catered to women, such as fashion and food, recognized a problem.  What was America going to do with millions of women who had grown accustomed to earning money, making decisions, and being independent?  Or as Babe muses in Next To Love, the challenge of out-of-work women was the World War II version of the old World War I song, “How ya’ gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree.”

The solution was less conspiracy than marketing and public relations cunning.  Dior’s New Look fired the first salvo.  While the trousers and short skirts of wartime encouraged women to stride and reach, Dior’s designs were intended to keep them in place.  Who could move in those tight bodices, cinched waists, and yards and yards of long full skirts?

The recipes of the era also show a marked change after the war.  During the war, women who were on an assembly line or in an office all day were still expected to get dinner on the table each evening.  With that in mind, the March, 1944, issue of Good Housekeeping featured recipes illustrated with twin clocks showing start and finish times.  After the war, the idea was to keep a woman in the kitchen for as long as possible.  A 1950 dinner recipe in the same magazine begins preparations right after breakfast.  Similarly, the dish that opens Babe’s eyes in the novel, which comes from an actual cookbook of the early postwar years, calls for thirty-two ingredients.

War transforms the society that wages it.  America emerged from World War II a different country from the one that entered it.  The female genii who had escaped from the bottle could not be forced back in.  It is no accident that the feminist revolution of the seventies was made by the daughters of the women who went out to work in the forties.

 

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