Taking inspiration from Ken Burns new PBS series, "The War," the San Francisco Chronicle looks at the experiences of American women living in the Bay area during WWII.

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The Chronicle interviews are quite diverse and include a retired physicist who was a Women’s Airforce Service Pilot (and one of two Chinese-American women to fly airplanes in the military), and a woman whose Japanese language skills weren’t good enough for her to work as a translator, so she was sent to an internment camp with her family. The stories demonstrate how women took advantage of new opportunities and also suffered under new prejudices.

The Chronicle also contextualizes the lasting impact on women’s roles.

"Maybe in general, war dislocates but does not become an agent of lasting change. However, war and World War II specifically did encourage questioning, the full implications of which take time to become evident," Mills College history Professor Marianne Sheldon tells the Chronicle.

"In some ways," continues Sheldon, "the domestic circumstances of the war fostered the roots of the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement that built on it. Many women who lived through World War II came to want different lives for their daughters."

Many black women were already working outside the home and didn’t see the new employment opportunities as any form of liberation.

"The Rosie the Riveter story is a white women’s story – a story of the emancipation of the middle-class white women working outside the home," said Betty Reid Soskin, 84, who now works as a ranger at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historical National Park in Richmond, and who was hired as a file clerk during the war at a segregated union hall for African American shipyard workers. The war brought her and her family discrimination on a level they had not previously experienced in California.

"One thing is certain," writes the Chronicle’s Carolyne Zinko. "Women’s roles in the workforce in World War II indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness that women were capable of all sorts of roles in society in addition to those of wife and mother – and of being independent in ways previously not socially acceptable – whether or not they wanted to make a career of them."

More on women’s roles during WWII can be found at the PBS website for "The War," which provides a number excellent resources; start with "The Family" section for interviews with women. And don’t forget to leave your comments here.


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