Conflicting Portrayals of WW2 Women in the 1940s

Plucky WAAF to the unfaithful harlot –

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It was a very different time to be a woman. On both sides of the Atlantic, conflicting messages about femininity and female sexuality were doled out by the official War Offices and subsequently spread by the media and the movie world. From the patriotic hard working WAAF, Land Girl and Rosie the Riveter to the loose single ‘victory girls’ who sought out vulnerable servicemen, broke up marriages and spread venereal diseases – a male dominated world was clearly struggling to categorize women in time of war.

Nurses---Conflicting-Portrayals-of-WW2-Women-in-the-1940s

Sexism was ever present, even in the propaganda posters which held up the assumption that women were doing their bit by ‘taking over the mens jobs’ until the end of the conflict, after which presumably they would go back to their roles of housewife and office secretary.

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The-Gentle Sex 1943 Conflicting-Portrayals-of-WW2-Women-in-the-1940s

While the war brought un-imagined new levels of autonomy for women on the home front, the propaganda machines were hard at work ‘reminding’ them that women should never forget their ultimate domestic roles. The simple fact that women were not allowed in direct combat is testament to a world that held on grimly to Victorian values.

WW2 Women Memorabilia Pack – direct to your device.

WW2 WOMEN MEMORABILIA PACK

Movie Portrayals of WW2 Women

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The 1940s screen woman is most iconic as the ‘femme fatale’ in so many crime noir films such as Double Indemnity (1944),The Maltese Falcon (1941), Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and The Woman in the Window (1944). In many cases however the movie world helped enhance the role and image of women in war time.

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Deborah Kerr in Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943

The films of Powell and Pressburger always cast women in strong modern roles, as in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp 1943, and their work stands above all the other movies of the 1940’s war era, not only for this reason but as major works of film art. The British WW2 woman was perhaps given the most enduring images in patriotic flicks such as The Gentle Sex (1943), Millions Like Us (1943) and This Above All (1942).

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There was the good woman as portrayed by Greer Garson in Mrs Miniver (1942) ( a fine movie in many ways), or Claudette Colbert in Since You Went Away (1944).These women were seen to be bravely keeping the home fires burning, wringing her hands, pluckily helping out in the Women’s Volunteer Services and grieving for her son or husband when they finally ‘bought it’ over the English channel or out on the Pacific oceans.

Mrs-Miniver--Conflicting-Portrayals-of-WW2-Women-in-the-1940s

Then there was the bad woman, who cheated on her husband or boyfriend or sent badly timed Dear John letters just before he stepped on a land mine! In Jon Towlsons book Subversive Horror Cinema, the 1942 film noir classic Cat People is highlighted as a good example of conflicting portrayals of women on screen in war time. We see two women – Alice who is doing her patriotic bit in the Navy and then Irena, played by Simone Signoret who appears to represent Alice’s darker sexual side.

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Cat People 1942 – Jane Randolph and Simone Signoret

Wartime Women in Magazines

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The most inspiring images of 1940s women were found on magazine covers across the globe. They were glamorously dressed, both in uniform and civilian clothing, their hairstyles were perfect rolls and pompadours and their makeup was stamped by vivacious red lipsticks.

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It is this image which most captured the so called glamour of war time, which of course was a myth, but who needs the truth when the myth sells more papers and consumer products. The WW2 woman of the 1940’s is thus preserved.

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That’s all !
©Glamourdaze 2018

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