In 1941, LIFE magazine decided to document the lives of one of the biggest single demographics in the U.S.: the 30 million housewives who did most of the washing, made beds, cooked meals and nursed almost all the babies of the nation, with little help, no wages and no other jobs.
The magazine chose Jane Amberg from Kanakee, Illinois as its subject, a “modern, young, middle-class housewife.” Around 1927, she went on a blind date with Gilbert Amberg. Three years later they were married, when Jane was 21. LIFE documented the jobs Jane performed to make sure their household ran smoothly. It represented the responsibilities of millions of other American women at the time: seamstress, chauffeur, laundress, chambermaid, cook, dishwasher, waitress and nurse. In Jane’s case, a maid came in occasionally to vacuum the floor and wash the windows, at $0.35 per hour.
Through all of this, Jane had to be her husband’s “best girl” outside the home. Once per week, the couple went to dinner, the movies or visited friends. They also entertained at home. All this would soon change. Just over two months after the article was published, the Japanese navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. America entered World War II.
World War II changed both the type of work women did and the volume at which they did it. Five million women entered the workforce between 1940-1945. The gap in the labor force created by departing soldiers meant opportunities for women. In particular, World War II led many women to take jobs in defense plants and factories around the country. These jobs provided unprecedented opportunities to move into occupations previously thought of as exclusive to men, especially the aircraft industry, where a majority of workers were women by 1943.
Social commentators worried that when men returned from military service there would be no jobs available for them, and admonished women to return to their “rightful place” in the home as soon as victory was at hand. Although as many as 75% of women reported that they wanted to continue working after World War II, women were laid off in large numbers at the end of the war. But women’s participation in the work force bounced back relatively quickly. Despite the stereotype of the “1950s housewife,” by 1950 about 32% of women were working outside the home, and of those, about half were married. World War II had solidified the notion that women were in the workforce to stay.
(Photo credit: William C. Shrout / Life Magazine / Getty Images).