WAM-Bam Thank You Ma'am: The G.I. Bill of Rights and Women's Education in the Post-War Years
In 1944, Congress passed the G.I. Bill of Rights, which provided comprehensive benefits for World War II veterans, including tuition, books, and living expenses for up to four years of almost any kind of education. 7.8 million veterans took advantage of these benefits. By 1947, 70% of all men enrolled in colleges and universities were World War II veterans. Because most veterans were male, women did not receive the same educational benefits. After World War II, women's average level of education dropped.
The influx of veterans into colleges and universities filled them to capacity, straining their resources. Educational institutions experienced a grave shortage of housing, faculty and facilities. To deal with the shortages, veterans received a preference in admissions to many schools, leaving less room for non-veterans, including women. Many schools limited the number of women admitted in order to make room for veterans.
The goal of the education provision in the G.I. Bill was to provide veterans with the skills they would need to live in a post-war world. As a result, the focus of higher education shifted away from liberal arts and toward practical instruction. Students showed a preference for specialized courses of study, such as engineering, science, law and medicine. Universities offered more practical courses of study and fewer liberal arts classes. Believing women would not need a liberal arts education, colleges trained women for temporary jobs to hold until they married and began what was seen as their primary role as wife and mother. Many educational leaders took the position that women should be educated only as necessary to fulfill that role. Believing the traditional college curriculum did not prepare women to be wives and mothers, colleges offered and recommended to women courses on family, childcare, and home economics. The pressures of the Cold War also altered educational strategies. Many believed that the survival of democracy depended upon the maintenance of strong families. Some argued that women who did not happily fulfill their traditional role as wives and mothers harmed the country. Women were expected to raise and teach children to be good citizens. Consequently, many women studied home economics or prepared for a teaching career by studying English and education. Few enrolled in large numbers of liberal arts courses or applied to join the professions.
During the War, women were encouraged to enter the labor force. Schools educated women for skilled jobs and the professions, and women generally enjoyed their work. After the War, many left the work force. Some chose to, while others were forced out by veterans' preference measures and the reinstatement of protective labor laws. Those who remained often were shunted into traditionally female, lower paying jobs. Women were driven out of higher education as well as the work force. Many believed that college educated women reject the traditional role of wife and mother. The country feared that learned women were less likely to marry and have children, threatening the country's population stability. Even those that did marry and have a family, it was thought, would have trouble finding the time to give their children proper guidance. As a result of these beliefs, women after the war married younger, had more children, and spent less time pursuing their educations.
In the mid-1960s, the trend away from educating women reversed its course. As veterans finished college, universities were left with excess capacity. They needed paying students and women were available to fill the void. A lack of funding for sex-specific curricula combined with a need to find talent from any source in the technological race with the post-Sputnik Soviet Union led to coeducation and equal treatment of the sexes in many colleges.
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