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Today in World War II History

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Lessons from the 1940s Woman – Be Involved!

US War Bond Poster, 1942

US War Bond Poster, 1942

The World War II era was a pivotal time for women, a hinge between the traditional home-based women’s role and the modern career-based role. Wartime posters show the fullness of a woman’s place in society and reveal the values that drove this generation to victory. Through these posters we’ll see lessons we can learn from women of that era.

When World War II began, women sprang to action as volunteers. This was an area in which women already excelled. For example, the Women’s Club in Antioch, California was founded in 1902. In the early years, they were responsible for raising funds and spearing drives to establish the town’s library, high school, street signs, house numbering, street paving, water delivery and sewage systems, and the planting of shade trees!

Nowadays, we glorify the wartime woman who went to work outside the home, but in reality, far more women served as volunteers, and their work was crucial to the war effort.

Church groups, women’s clubs, the PTA, the USO, and the Red Cross all performed important services for the country. Women raised funds, bought war bonds, planted Victory Gardens, gave blood, ran recreational centers, and even knitted socks for the troops.

US poster promoting Victory Gardens, 1943

US poster promoting Victory Gardens, 1943

The American Red Cross, for example, had 37 million members during the war, and raised $785 million. In addition, 20 million youth joined the Junior Red Cross. They shipped 13 million pints of blood to the military and shipped 300,000 tons of supplies overseas, both for the troops, and for civilian wartime relief.

Red Cross volunteers rolled bandages, ran blood drives, and made clothes for refugees and kit bags for soldiers. They served in hospitals as “Gray Ladies,” reading to the wounded, writing letters, and serving in the recreation rooms. They operated canteens to serve meals at train stations, docks, and military posts at home and abroad. They served as nurse’s aides and dietitian’s aides.

To the 1940s woman, community mattered. She willingly gave up her time to volunteer for the sake of her country. And she accomplished amazing things.

Poster for American Red Cross Hospital Workers, WWII

Poster for American Red Cross Hospital Workers, WWII

Today we live in a self-oriented culture rather than the civic-minded culture of the past. Despite talk about a return to volunteerism, most civic organizations and churches struggle to find people willing to commit time to serve, and most of the functions they once performed have shifted to government. 

These women inspire me, and I hope they inspire you too. What can you learn from them? How can you contribute?

6 responses to “Lessons from the 1940s Woman – Be Involved!”

  1. Paul Letters says:


    The penultimate paragraph made me think of the views of David Brooks (NYT). I came across his views on character – and how it’s changed since WW2 to the ‘Big Me’ culture – on this BBC podcast:

    I’ll be buying his book, ‘The Road to Character’.

    Paul Letters
    (Author of A Chance Kill)

  2. These women did all their volunteering despite not having today’s time savers like dishwashers, wrinkle-free shirts, and crock pots. Plus rationing made life more difficult.

  3. Sara Hunt says:

    The next to last paragraph really resonates with me. I see this both at church, in my service club, and in community organizations I am involved with. People can talk a good talk but when they are called upon to put their words into actions they fall short. The bulk of the volunteerism falls to just a few willing people. If people knew the intrinsic reward of helping others, assisting with no expectations of receiving something in return, of doing good works just because it’s the right thing to do, we might become community minded once again. We need to look at the lives of our mothers, grandmothers, and, for the younger generation, our great-grandmothers and learn from their example. The women of the Greatest Generation certainly did their part to help win the war, even at home.

    • Sarah Sundin says:

      Amen! I’ve taught Sunday school for years – so much fun it shouldn’t really count as “volunteering.” The ministry (and every other ministry) works so hard to recruit, but really, shouldn’t we have a waiting list? Shouldn’t people be saying, “Bother. I really wanted to help in Sunday school this year, but they were full. Maybe next year.”

Embers in the London Sky cover
“Another masterful installment in Sundin’s roster of WWII novels.”
—Booklist starred review for Embers in the London Sky

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