• Shreyanshi Mishra

War Fright and Women’s Rights

How The World Wars Hastened Women’s Liberation

The world wars were a period when the men were away fighting wars on foreign fronts and the women for the first time stepped outside their homes to serve their nations in the best way possible. Yesterday’s domestic workers became today’s pilots, truck drivers, plant workers, concentration-camp guards, nurses and what not! Paradoxically, the horrors of the world war pioneered womens’ freedom.

The challenges faced during the war brought about a paradigm shift in perspective for many Americans and Europeans. They were forced to rethink their ideas of gender norms in the face of imminent danger. More importantly, if those gender norms, set in stone at the time, were worth the complete breakdown of the industrial sector due to the acute shortage of ‘manpower’.

Rosie The Riveter: The Best of Both Worlds

Changes in gender norms during the war time period are best encapsulated by the most famous cultural icon of the Second World War, Rosie the Riveter. She is a strong, assertive yet compliant, patriotic woman with denim sleeves rolled up to reveal her biceps. “We can do it”, a war campaign started in her name encouraging women to actively take part in public workspaces in the dire time of war. She represents all women who worked for wages during the war. Self-assured as she was, it was difficult for most Americans to digest an idea so distant from what a 'proper' woman should be.

To placate the enraged working men who interpreted women’s engagement in paid labour as encroachment, leaders assured the masses that this heavy involvement of women in working spaces was temporary.

Rosie the Riveter, a war time hero, still has manicured nails and carefully styled hair. She might have taken up new roles – those of a man, but her place as a home keeper was undisputed, and always herex priority. She is patriotic and loyal, and most importantly, satisfied with less salary than what her male counterparts were making for the same work.

Post War Period: The Return of Gender Dichotomy

The end of the war played out exactly how the Americans had hoped. Birth rate increased substantially and a period of prosperity awaited the general west. Women in workplaces were swiftly replaced with war veterans, as was promised. Except for a few women who were eager to return to the comfort of their homes, most women were not ready to give up on their new found freedom.

To combat the rising tensions in the otherwise peaceful lives of the middle-class, post-war propaganda was spread with renewed vigour. Prominent writers and psychologists of the time called women who wished to work ‘unlovely’ and worse, afflicted with ‘penis envy’ -- Sigmund Freud’s hypothesis. Magazines and movies were filled with scenes of women in domestic settings, looking after the kids or doing household chores. The idea of the perfect wife became synonymous with submissive and chaste home keepers again.

Outburst of The Second Wave Feminism

The women who had been independent of male dominance during the second world war were not ready to surrender their newfound freedom just yet. The second wave of feminism was born out of the principles of the civil rights movement like justice and equality. Issues like wage gap, sexual harassment, child care and domestic violence were at the fore front of the movement.

The movement was started in the United States and is said to have been set off by Betty Freidman’s book, ‘The Feminine Mystique’. The book highlights ‘problems that have no name’ talking in depth about the gender discrimination faced by women and is arguably one of the most ground-breaking feminist texts of all time.

The Towards Equality Report of The Committee on The Status of Women in India, 1974 laid down the legal framework of The Women’s Rights Movement in Post-Independence India and was also inspired by The Feminine Mystique.

The movement, though concentrated in the United States, quickly spread to all parts of the world. 1975 was declared The International Year for Women by the United Nations and implementation of development schemes for women, focusing on realizing eco-social changes was pledged.

Intersectionality: Feminism for All

During the first half, the second wave of the feminist movement was successful in uniting women of all walks of life. The movement was not seen in a positive light in many conservative spaces but its more liberal streams still garnered sympathy and support from the general public. But as time passed and the movement took a more political form, women of marginalized communities started to perceive the activism with a general air of skepticism. The movement was largely spearheaded by white women and in fact left behind their community in the darkness, depriving them of their rights.

It was realized by both women of colour and queer women then, that their struggles would never gain precedence over the problems faced by the middle-class white women. Both the objectives and the plan of action of the mainstream feminist movement did not align with the beliefs and needs of marginalized women.

This prompted a third wave of feminism called ‘Intersectional Feminism’ that emerged to combat the flaws of the second wave and decentralize the movement and make it more inclusive. The term intersectionality was first coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, to study the overlapping systems of oppression experienced by women in varying degrees and patterns, often based on their multiple identities.


From the ruins of the second world war rose many human rights movements. The horrors of the war had forced civilians to rethink the power structures under which they functioned, paving a way for transforming lives especially for women. With the turn of the 21st century, several of these movements have split and evolved themselves to mean a lot more than what they had initially stood for. Modern day feminism demands accountability and inclusion. Although we have come far, there is still a long road ahead before we achieve equality for all.


~ Shreyanshi Mishra

References: Frontiers, BBC, FeminismInIndia