“While You Are Away”: The Impact of the Second World War on Women’s Household Roles


“While You Are Away”: The Impact of the Second World War on Women’s Household Roles
by Meghan Grech


The Second World War has been seen as both a ‘watershed’ expansion of women’s roles and limited in providing real change. Much research has focused on growing opportunities for women in masculine workplaces, but positions away from working environments reacted to wartime conditions too. Women who lived through World War II on the home front witnessed complex changes to perceptions of their gender, with propaganda and policy giving them new agency while reinforcing their positions as victims, housewives and mothers. Policies aimed at improving the war effort in unoccupied regions considered women sexual agents while also reinforcing sexual ‘morality’. In occupied regions, enemy soldiers reinforced their positioning of women as subordinate through rape. Furthermore, the traditional roles of homemaker and mother were reinforced by their increased promotion and subverted through new importance via mobilisation. Therefore, even away from the typical narrative of ‘women mobilised for war work’, the Second World War simultaneously emphasised and questioned traditional roles of women.

Promiscuity and Fidelity: Women’s Sexual Agency

while you are away
Figure 1: While You Are Away, ca. 1942

Though new avenues opened for seeing women as sexual actors, this was accompanied by attempts to assert women’s ‘rightfully’ chaste role. To demoralise enemy soldiers, both the Allies and the Axis Powers dropped propaganda over enemy camps. A theme common to both sides was to suggest soldiers’ partners were being unfaithful; for example, German propaganda would suggest that British wives were sleeping with the visiting Americans “while you are away”. Dagmar Herzog suggests that this indicates “a wholly transformed idea of female sexuality”, because women were portrayed as actively expressing sexual interest (16). Though the notion of a woman deviously expressing sexuality was not entirely new during the war – women’s sexuality had for centuries been persecuted along a binary of virgins and whores – its conditions forefronted the issue as relevant to the everywoman left behind by her soldier. However, these leaflets were ineffective on soldiers; many even used them as pinups. This indicates that the men did not see partner promiscuity as a serious threat, possibly because the idea of women as sexual agents was not believable to them. This propaganda is therefore an example of conflicting perceptions of women; while governments attempted to foster an image of women as actively engaged in sexuality, the women’s partners continued to assume they were loyal and passive.

However, communities did have to reckon with women’s sexuality. Mobilising soldiers took them away from female partners and exposed women to foreign soldiers; nearly one million American soldiers were stationed in Australia between 1942-5. This raised concerns for women’s sexual morality, primarily that women would have casual relationships with these men – such concerns were exacerbated by the increased number of women entering the workforce and therefore more actively engaging with public spaces. Women’s sexual agency was recognised. However, reactions against this change reinforced how women were ‘supposed’ to behave. For instance, women’s police forces in several Australian states sought women suspected of carrying venereal disease to test them. They targeted women believed promiscuous, thus reinforcing the ‘superiority’ of monogamous women. Similarly, the Nazi government regulated brothels in Vienna to protect against the sexual immorality they believed threatened racial and military superiority. War was the motivation for enforcing this control; regulations were at least partially to prevent a recurrence of the large number of soldiers removed from action by venereal disease in World War One. The Second World War thus intensified the expectation that women would remain loyal to their male partners and the belief that women were sexually passive.

Passivity and Manipulation: Sex as a Tool of Power

Sex between soldiers and the women of invaded territories, especially through rape, was common during the Second World War. Official Japanese policy during the 1937 invasion of China legitimised civilian attacks, including taking ‘comfort women’ to satisfy soldiers sexually. Up to 200,000 women were kidnapped from China and Southeast Asia by 1945. It is estimated that Nazi soldiers had sex (both consensually and through rape) with one in ten Danish women and one in five Norwegian women. Similarly, many German women were raped as Soviet soldiers approached Berlin. Rape in warfare and imperial conquest was not unique to the Second World War. Scholars including Anne Summers have explored how rape of women can be an “ideological weapon” by physically intruding her body and denying her control over it (245). It acts as an invasion of women’s bodies to parallel the invasion of territory. This use of rape, legitimised by some army leaders, puts women in the place of an enemy one is attempting to subjugate. Rapes in wartime thus emphasised the notion that women were subservient, especially sexually.

In addition, wartime rape reinforced the idea that women and the home were ‘naturally’ connected. Rape was often framed – even by victims – as an extension of the destruction of homes. Atina Grossmann suggests that rape had “become routine” for women during the Battle of Berlin, rarely more noteworthy than building destruction (169). Rape was similarly ‘just part’ of looting and terrorising in China; an anonymous observer described the rape of women in Shanzitou Village in March 1942 as a culmination of the violence that “turned the quiet, peaceful village into a nightmare” (qtd. in Lary, 145). In contrast, many young Chinese women were hidden by families in their homes when Japanese soldiers arrived, maintaining the idea that homes were places of protection. However, this still reinforced the idea that women should stay in their homes. Diana Lary suggests that in China, “the war stopped that process [of emancipating women 1920s-30s] in its tracks” by reinforcing victimhood (171), though this statement could be applied to women in all occupied zones.

However, such situations were sometimes an opportunity for women to exercise a form of agency. Some women would deliberately use the soldiers’ desire for their own advantage. Herzog and Grossmann discuss how women in Nazi-occupied regions and Soviet-occupied Germany would exchange sex for food and protection. Some German women even bragged about ‘victories’ with friends, thus celebrating their use of sexuality. War therefore allowed some women to openly use sexual agency in a way that was respected rather than shamed, subverting expectations of passivity.

 Save Your Cans: Managing the Household

Though her roles expanded and greater emphasis was placed on her importance, the ‘Homemaker’ was emphasised during World War Two. The tradition of the homely housewife was somewhat subverted by the role’s new connection to the war effort. American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt suggested that running households contributed “more to the war effort than [the women] themselves realize”, suggesting the role received greater attention for contributing to war (qtd. in Harrington, 41). In Britain, the ‘People’s War’ theme of propaganda encouraged women to see food production as maintaining morale and controlling waste as producing munitions. Similar posters in America showed household waste morphing into ammunition, often with women’s hands doing the passing (see Harrington, 41). The connection of the woman’s household to war gave it greater importance.

However, this expansion was compromised by emphasis on keeping the homemaker at home. Sam Harrington emphasises how the same American posters maintained distance between women and the front by keeping her face away from battlefields. Posters “affirm[ed] that housewives should, and must, act on behalf of the war effort, but that they should never themselves witness the carnage” (43). Furthermore, the emphasis on balancing service to the household with expanded duties reiterated women’s obligation towards domestic tasks. The radio broadcast ‘Ways Women Can Help’ acknowledged American women’s war work, but reminded them that they had to “plan [their] household duties carefully” to allow it time (Bentley, 34). Similarly, a newsletter issued to Nazi women’s leaders emphasised the “double burden” of working women, stating jobs were taken “alongside their household duties and their children” (E.H., “The Test”). Women’s roles could grow, but their priority was always maintaining the household.

Figure 2: Fascism – the Most Evil Enemy of Women / Everyone to the struggle against fascism! 1941

Significantly, this narrative was not universal. In contrast to the American posters which distanced women from the battlefield, Soviet posters put women in front of violence. The destroyed house in the background of ‘Fascism—the Most Evil Enemy of Women’ acknowledges that women were witnesses to destruction. Similarly, race and class influenced women’s experience as a homemaker. Women of colour and poorer women were more likely to work in factories, with many leaving work as domestic servants for these better paying positions. Middle- and upper-class women usually had more time in domestic roles or in food-based volunteering, especially in America. They were all, however, exposed to the general propaganda that glorified the extended importance of the homemaker. Though the subversion and reinforcement of the homemaker role were simultaneously involved in affecting women’s lives, different women experienced them to different degrees.

Cornerstone: The Restrictions of Motherhood

Motherhood’s importance was heightened during the war. The media emphasised the youth of workers; newspapers often called them “girls”, and recruitment posters featured young women. Immature, and not yet motherly, such portrayals set them apart from women of child-raising age. Britain conscripted women for factory work, but this was limited to the young and “mobile”, excluding mothers of children under fourteen who were “anchored by their maternal responsibilities” (Summerfield, 80). Though mothers did work, backlash against this reinforced women’s motherly responsibilities. American and Australian newspapers feared the disruption of the nuclear family, as newspapers like the Sydney Morning Herald expressed concern for children “return[ing] home [to] no parent there to show him any affection”, being “sabotage[d] … for the sake of a few extra pounds”. Even the Soviet Union, the only nation that allowed women to volunteer for combat, informally required soldiers to be “single and childless” (Reese, 284). Though many women took on the ‘double burden’ of working and raising children, as with homemaking, media insisted that children were a woman’s top priority, and that even the ‘girls’ would quit jobs to raise them eventually. Such insistent cultural criticisms suggest that despite more women moving into the workforce, they failed to subvert the role of the still ‘immobile’ mother.

A common theme of psychological mobilisation insisted that mothers remained the foundation of the home. Women’s ‘patriotic sacrifice’ was linked to motherhood, as American women were given official awards for having several children fighting in the war or a son killed on the front.  The publication of these details in Australian newspapers shows the global influence of this image. Indeed, the acknowledgement of daughters “engaged in civilian defence work” highlights the distinction between young women celebrated for less traditional work, and older mothers celebrated for raising children (“No. 1 War Mother”, 8). Similarly, mothering was a “symbol of social stability” that reminded everyone what they fought to come home to (Bentley, 31). In The Gentle Sex (1943), mothers anxiously wait for their daughters to return home while the father is allowed to be excited for his child’s service. Britain “promise[d]” to leave mothers as the “cornerstone” upon which the mobilised family could be restored post-war, reinforcing mothers as symbols of the home and family (Summerfield, 47).

However, the mother role was sometimes subverted. Though much media separated working women from mothers, the roles were occasionally intertwined. The Sun honoured a mother of nine working in the war industry, with an image emphasising immersion rather than distance. Similarly, demands for women to remain home to look after children were countered by calls for increased childcare, which the American government supplied. Like the propaganda concerning unfaithful wives, the state subverted the ‘immobile mother’ to benefit the war effort, while the public refused to recognise change. Additionally, different perceptions of family in China gave change a different meaning. Men’s mobilisation and the destruction of towns changed family structures; the traditional ‘four generations under one roof’ was reduced, often to nuclear families. Having fewer relatives present to help, mothers had greater responsibility raising their children. Though this appears to reinforce traditional roles from a Western perspective – women having to look after children – differing cultural contexts mean this is a subversion of the degree to which mothers were responsible for their own children.


Women’s experience during the Second World War was far more complex than Rosie the Riveter marching into the factories and proving – to the men and to herself – that ‘she could do it’. Rosie had to go home, where she was still expected to run her household and represent it to husbands and invaders alike. Rosie was a sexual being, through her own agency, in the ways it was forced upon her, and the way others judged her for it. And not everyone got to be Rosie, because they were old enough to be raising children or had money that let them avoid work. The achievement of some social equality does not mean a marginalised demographic can access total freedom, especially when that group is far from homogenous. But the Second World War did enrich public perception of Rosie, where her work both inside and outside the home took on greater value and people were more likely to acknowledge her personal life. The conditions of war simultaneously subverted and reinforced women’s traditional household roles, a multiplicity which must be recognised to truly understand the non-linear progression of social change.



Reference List

List of Figures

Figure. 1. “While You Are Away.” In Gessler, Nicholas. “Propaganda: Germany to Allies.” 2010. https://people.duke.edu/~ng46/collections/propaganda/germany-to-allies/

Figure. 2. Barburina, Nina. “Fascism—the Most Evil Enemy of Women/Everyone to the Struggle against Fascism!” In Lives and Voices: Source in European Women’s History, Lisa DiCaprio and Merry E. Wiesner, 538. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001.

Primary Sources

“America’s ‘No. 1’ War Mother.” Southern Cross (Adelaide), 8 September 1944. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/19710501>

Bay, Rose. “Juvenile Delinquency.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 1945. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/993287>

E.B. “Praise for Girls’ War Work.” Chronicle (Adelaide), 6 May 1943. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/8691048>

E.H. “The Test.” Nachrichtendienst der Reichsfrauenführung Sonderdienst, 10, no. 8 (2011[1941]). Translated by Randall L. Bytwerk.

“The Gentle Sex,” YouTube video, 1:28:26. Posted by “Ahithophel Ebejer,” 6 October 2013. < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHwynDT8cg0&t=332s>

“Girls prefer war work.” The Independent, 6 February 1941. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/10982760>

“How The Story Begins.” Evening Telegraph (Dundee), 2 February 1945. British Library Newspapers, <tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4qvbP7>

“Mother’s War Job.” The Sun, 12 August 1942. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/24717604>

“No. 1 War Mother.” Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 30 July 1942. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/10044354>

Ridge, M. “Working Mothers.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 1944. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/1087025>

“State Care for Children of Working Mothers.” Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate, 27 November 1943. <http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/10039006>

Thomason, P.E. “Working Mothers.” The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July 1945. http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/993232

Secondary Sources

Bentley, Amy. Eating for Victory. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

Bethke Elshatain, Jean. “Women and War.” In The Oxford History of Modern War, edited by Charles Townshend, 303-16. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Campbell, D’Ann. Women at War with America. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Czech, Herwig. “Venereal Disease, Prostitution, and the Control of Sexuality in World War II Vienna.” East Central Europe, 38, no. 1 (2011): 64-78.

Darin-Smith, Kate. “World War 2 and post-war reconstruction, 1939-49.” In The Cambridge History of Australia, edited by Alison Bashford and Stuart Macintyre, 88-111. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Grossmann, Atina. “A Question of Silence: The Rape of German Women by Soviet Occupation Soldiers.” In Women at War in the Twentieth Century: Enlisted With or Without Consent, edited by Nicole Ann Dombrowski, 162-183. New York, London: Routledge, 1999.

Harrington, Sam. “Women’s Work: Domestic Labor in American World War II Posters.” Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America 22, no. 2 (2003): 41-4.

Herzog, Dagmar. “European Sexualities in the Age of Total War.” In The Oxford Handbook of European History, 1914-1945, edited by Nicholas Doumanis, 407-421. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Lary, Diana. The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation, 1937-1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Lemar, Susan. “‘Sexually cursed, mentally weak and socially untouchable’: Women and Veneral Diseases in World War Two Adelaide.” Journal of Australian Studies, 79 (2003): 153-164.

Pickles, Katie. “Review: Deborah Montgomerie’s ‘The Women’s War: New Zealand Women 1939-45’ and Dianne Bardsley’s ‘The Land of Girls: In a Man’s World, 1939-1946’.” History Now, 8, no. 3 (2002): 18-20.

Reese, Roger R. Why Stalin’s Soldiers Fought: The Red Army’s Military Effectiveness in World War II. Lawrence: Kansas University Press, 2011.

Summerfield, Penny. Reconstructing women’s wartime lives: Discourse and subjectivity in oral histories of the Second World War. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Summers, Anne. Damned Whores and God’s Police. Camberwell: Penguin Books Australia, 2003.


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