Women and World War II: Women in the Government

Women in Political Leadership in Wartime

Frances Perkins
London Express / Getty Images

In addition to thousands of women who took government jobs in support of the war effort or to free up men for other jobs, women played key leadership roles in government.

In China, Madame Chiang Kai-shek was an active promoter of the Chinese cause against the Japanese occupation. This wife of the Nationalist leader of China was head of China's air force during the war. She spoke to the US Congress in 1943. She was called the world's most famous woman for her efforts.

British women in government also played important roles during the war. Queen Elizabeth (wife of King George VI, born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon) and her daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (future Queen Elizabeth II) and Margaret, were an important part of the morale effort, continuing to live at Buckingham Palace in London even when the Germans were bombing the city, and distributing aid in the city after bombing raids. Member of Parliament and feminist, American-born Nancy Astor, worked to keep up the morale of her constituents and served as unofficial hostess to American troops in England.

In the United States, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt played an active role in building morale among civilians and military forces. Her husband's use of a wheelchair -- and his conviction that he must not be seen publicly as disabled -- meant that Eleanor traveled, wrote, and spoke. She continued to publish a daily newspaper column. She also advocated for responsible roles for women and for minorities.

Other women in decision-making positions included Frances Perkins, US Secretary of Labor (1933-1945), Oveta Culp Hobby who headed the War Department's Women's Interest Section and became director of the Women's Army Corps (WAC), and Mary McLeod Bethune who served as director of the Division of Negro Affairs and advocated the commissioning of black women as officers in the Women's Army Corps.

At the end of the war, Alice Paul rewrote the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been introduced into and rejected by each session of Congress since women had achieved the vote in 1920. She and other former suffragists expected that women's contributions to the war effort would naturally lead to the acceptance of equal rights, but the Amendment didn't pass Congress until the 1970s, and eventually failed to pass in the required number of states.