by Injee Hong
World War II is a topic that I have had quite a lot of contact with over the course of my history career, whether it was through U.S., European, or world history courses. However, during the third week of this past block, I had the opportunity to look at this war I have studied many times before from a new angle. Dr. Egge challenged my class to look at collections of propaganda posters from WWII and see what messages they were propagating to the home front. As I looked through Northwestern University’s online collection, I was surprised by the wide range of posters I encountered. There were posters about rationing food to posters about preventing forest fires. I focused my research on the propaganda that depicted women and looked at how American women were being portrayed during the war.
Before we looked at these posters, Dr. Egge told us to think about propaganda posters as a distinct category of primary sources. Because these posters are visuals, it was crucial to think about how every color, font, and positioning choice was intentional. This was quite a different experience from looking at census records the week before. There were numerous misspellings and inconsistencies in the census records for the Hinds family (discussed in my previous article), and thus looking at the contrast between just these two different types of primary sources reinforced how interesting history is as a discipline. History is not simply about regurgitating facts about the past, but rather an opportunity to interpret the past and learn more about ourselves in the process.
There was a particular series of posters that caught my eye called “Jenny on the Job.” The posters essentially depicted a working woman performing different tasks. The artists, and other masterminds designing these posters, chose to depict Jenny as a petite blonde with stereotypically attractive features such as a small waist and rosy cheeks. According to these posters, Jenny lifts weight the easy way at work, eats “man size” meals, and still manages to get her beauty rest. Although at first glance it seems like the government is expanding the limits placed on women, the Jenny on the Job series actually reveals how these new freedoms women were experiencing (like working outside of the home) were, in my opinion, meant to be temporary.
When I saw the poster depicting Jenny eating a “man size” meal, I could not help but wonder if women would be encouraged to eat a balanced, filling meal during times of peace as well. Also, the fact that the meal was labeled using the phrase “man size” exposes the inherent bias being propagated by the government agency who designed the poster. By tying the need for female labor outside of the home to patriotism and necessity, the government was able to successfully recruit women to fill the thousands of jobs left empty by men leaving to go fight overseas. However, this expansion of labor outside of the home for women did not actually translate to increased rights after the war. In fact, the 1950s was when the concept of the nuclear family became prominent and women were expected to be caring mothers and wives once again. Therefore, WWII propaganda posters depicting women on the home front actually challenge the prevalent narrative that WWII America was a bastion of progress for women’s rights.