During World War II, American women went to work in record numbers. They took over jobs traditionally held by men, experienced unprecedented financial and personal freedom, and kept the war machine and economy running with their invaluable contributions. Once the war was over, they were unceremoniously asked to give the men their jobs back and return to the home, where society deemed they belonged. Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz, was released in 1945 and thus coincided with the end of the war. The film is a virtual time capsule of American society during World War II, perfectly capturing the freedom and the grim aftermath of the female experience. Joan Crawford stars as Mildred, a single mother and wartime Everywoman who attains substantial success in the business world but loses her femininity along the way. The consequences of Mildred having a career are blown way out of proportion to emphasize the inequity women faced during this period. This paper discusses the role of the American woman during and after World War II and examines the film’s ramifications in its social-historical context.
While pursuing her career, Mildred attains great success, at the expense of her femininity. Similarly, the country that asked the women for help also told them that working made them less feminine. Mildred trades love for her career, because women could not possibly have both. Yet even though Mildred achieves relative financial freedom, Monte and Wally own shares of her business, so she never really escapes the control of men. Like many American women, her career ends abruptly. “When the war ended, the nation welcomed the men home and began enforcing the promise the women workers had made – or the country had decided they had made – to give up their jobs for the returning soldiers” (Collins 394). In the final moments of the film, women are forced back into domesticity, indicated by the two women washing the floor and Mildred’s unemotional reunion with Bert. Finally, order is restored, at least according to society.
All in all, Mildred Pierce portrays the two extremely conflicting sides of women’s involvement in World War II. Success and sacrifice are inextricably linked in a world with no hope of balance. Michael Curtiz and the other filmmakers denounced the social conditions facing women by equating a career with incest, death, bankruptcy, and murder. They depicted the constantly changing, unrealistic demands placed upon women. By articulating their message so overtly and exaggerating the extreme and incongruous ramifications of Mildred’s alleged transgressions, the filmmakers challenged the very foundation of American society in the 1940s.