Women’s Roles

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The Heart Mountain Relocation Center in Wyoming, 1942. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.

The disruption in familial roles and structure had a significant impact on the lives of Japanese American women. Japanese families were typically patriarchal in structure, and this changed under internment. When men were no longer the economic centers of the household, the traditional identities of men and women were reconfigured, along with the long-established gendered division of labor. Marriage and childbearing were also delayed by separation and other circumstances, which changed the timeline of independence for single women.

A former prisoner whose father was taken away recalls the impact it had on her sister and mother. Her sister went from being a pampered child to the head of the household. These kinds of transitions gave women greater power within the family unit and children adult responsibilities.

Despite the difficulties of familial upheaval and the dehumanization of imprisonment, there were long-term changes in the lives of Japanese American women that some see as ultimately advantageous. Small living spaces and collectivization of tasks such as meal preparation, laundry, and child care, lessened women’s domestic duties. In some ways these were positive changes for women, freeing up young women for education, and older women for wage-earning positions. But greater power sometimes came at a cost: separation from beloved male family members or the loss of a care-free childhood.