Chapter 4 of “Unfinished Journey” by W. H. Chafe
In the fourth chapter, Chafe addresses some of the issues that Americans faced in the postwar years starting from 1945 when World War II ended. This synopsis focuses on two social reform issues and opportunities that Americans hoped the end of the war would herald. The first issue is that of the experience of women during this period. According to Chafe, “women who hoped to consolidate and expand the advances they had made during the war also encountered frustration” (79). Before the war, women had assumed the traditional housewife roles in society, but the war presented uncommon times where everyone was required to contribute in one way or another. Therefore, women working in various posts during the war wished to continue with the same in the postwar era, but the society at the time was not ready for such unprecedented changes. As such, as Chaffe notes, the “dominant theme of postwar popular writing consisted of exhortations insisting that women return to their rightful place in the home” (80). The Congress was being petitioned to compel women, by law, to return home and take care of their children and husbands.
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Therefore, despite protests from women all over the country, the majority of them lost their jobs. Chafe indicates that between September 1945 and November 1946, over 3 million women either quit their jobs or were fired (81). However, the author notes that starting in 1946, women started gaining meaningful employment and by the end of the 1940s, the proportion of working women had increased to 32 percent, which was a significant increase from the previous decade at a rate of 27 percent. Nevertheless, the general experiences of women during this era were characterized by disappointment and frustrations. Even with the increasing employment rates among women, they faced yet another obstacle – that of unequal pay and economic inequalities. The majority of women were forced to work in low cadre jobs, such as waitresses and maids with high-paying jobs being preserved for men.
Similarly, black Americans shared the women’s experiences of frustration and disappointment after the war. The author argues, “perhaps more than any other group, black Americans in 1945 looked forward to carrying forward their fight for freedom” (Chafe 82). Blacks sought to continue building on the spirit of the war to secure a permanent place in the Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC), gain suffrage rights, abolish the poll tax, and stop the inhumane act of lynching among other problems that affected them. As opposed to women, black Americans were aggressive in pursuing their rights with veterans leading the way. This agitation bore some positive results with the registration of more than 18,000 blacks as voters in Atlanta in 1946 (Chafe 83). However, these gains were overshadowed by the societal rigidity to hold on to cultural stereotypes that blacks were not supposed to vote.
Despite the concerted efforts by President Harry Truman to help blacks in their quest to gain citizenship, this minority group was disadvantaged in the face of subtle white supremacy societal norms. In the end, the protests by blacks succeeded mainly in creating a sense of hope and promises that the federal government would supthem then as opposed to initiating substantive actions. Ultimately, Chafe argues that by the end of the decade, the lives and status of black Americans had not changed significantly from what it was before the war (85). While President Truman offered politics of gesture and moving speeches, such was not enough for the black Americans, who were optimistic that the postwar era would bring the much-needed change.
Chafe, H. William. The Unfinished Journey: America Since World War II. Oxford University Press, 2003.