Time Capsule: The 'War on Women' Circa 1945

This isn't the only time the phrase has been invoked to describe America's sociopolitical disagreements.

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February 1945.

World War II is still raging, but Americans are reasonably sure the Allies are months rather than years from victory. Willard Waller took to the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle Magazine -- published in a city to which many of the men fighting in the Pacific would return -- to predict "The Coming War on Women."

"When our soldiers get through fighting the Germans and the Japs, they will have to fight their own women," he warned his readers. "For the next war is the war of the sexes. Founded upon the oldest antagonism in the world, this ancient conflict sometimes smolders but it never dies. It is not a savage war but a very important one, because our future depends upon its outcome."

The cause of the predicted hostilities:

During the war years, American women have forged steadily ahead in industry, politics and education, but the soldiers probably will put an end to all that when they return... Especially in the period following a major war are men and women at loggerheads. War brings a temporary revolution in the relations of the two sexes. One might say the women get out of hand. This happened in WWI, and, before that, in our Civil and Revolutionary Wars. But after this war the women will probably put up a stronger fight for supremacy because this war's changes have merely climaxed generations of feministic progress.

The author interviewed veterans upset by that progress:


Tech. Sgt. John A. Price, who was wounded in the European theater, is married and has a little girl. "After the war," he says, "women will be needed in the home. They're needed to rear children to become good citizens. Our civilization needs homes, and the woman is the foundation of a good home." Now convalescing... is Cpl. Fred Bienstock, who says: "I'm married. My wife's working now, but we want to start a family as soon as possible. You can't have a family when the wife is working. I want her to quit and let me do the supporting. Anyway, there aren't going to be too many jobs and the men ought to get 'em. And something else: if a woman isn't married, she certainly isn't going to be unless she quits her job - or is willing to quit."

Wounded in the Middle East, Cpl. Otto Makovy declared, "I'm not married. But when I am, I'll insist on doing all the supporting, and my wife's staying home. That's a woman's place. Another thing it seems to me that we won't have to worry so much about juvenile delinquency if there's somebody in the homes looking after the kids..."

Waller then predicted that the "battle for jobs" would be followed by "the battle of the birth rate" and "the battle of personal ascendancy," warning that "the patriarchal family must be restored and strengthened."

Why?

If we are to have an adequate birth rate, we must hear less talk about women's rights and more about their duty to the race. The plain fact is, women do not produce children under the conditions of freedom and equality that have existed in the United States since the last war. The birth rate among educated, emancipated women is very low indeed, since few women manage to compete with men and, at the same time, produce their due number of children. Usually the career of a brilliant woman is bought at the cost of an empty nursery. The price is too high, even if the contribution is great... Now surely some old-fashioned feminist will say that a woman is the mistress of her own body; the nation has no right to force her to bear children. Well the man is the master of his body too, but hardly anyone questions the right of the nation to force him to expose his body to the risks of war. A woman's ownership of her body should be subordinate to her obligation as the trustee of the race.   

That established, Waller concluded by offering practical advice for how to bring about male dominion. "A man should not try to convince his wife that he is more intelligent than she is, because very likely that is not true," Waller says. "It is better just to tell her plainly that he is going to be the boss, and then she will be very angry and will threaten to leave him and will love him to distraction." The "War on Women" circa 1945 doesn't much resemble the one  today.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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