World War II broke out in Europe in 1939. During the first few years of the war, the US remained, or attempted to remain, neutral. The economy was significantly improved from the days of the depression, and even as Americans watched the horrors unfolding across the ocean, life was returning to normal.
That all changed, of course, on December 7th, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the US declared war on Japan the very next day. Suddenly jobs shifted from civilian to war efforts. Taxes were raised and precious war-time commodities were rationed. Men from all walks of life were pulled into service, and the landscaped of the American workplace was changed forever.
LIFE INSURANCE IN THE EARLY 1940S
Life insurance faced several hurdles in the 1940s. One particular impediment was the renewed fight over the New Deal, and whether life insurance was a federal or state concern. In a particularly impassioned article from 1940, written by Frank Gannett and entitled “Now Is the Time to Act: Save the Nation from Chaos,” he writes:
Life insurance has built in the short span of one century the greatest social security system that any people have ever known. Life insurance is the very embodiment of democratic ideals of individual responsibility….The total amount now in force in the United States is approximately 114 billion dollars. No wonder the Washington bureaucrats, having exhausted their genius for inventing new taxes, are itching to get their fingers on this 30-billion-dollar-prize…
Another difficulty was, quite obviously, the war. With the outbreak of the war, life insurance companies acted quickly to add the war exclusion rider to all sales, thereby protecting themselves from excessive claims due to war-time casualties. They were, of course, still liable for all policies purchased prior to the implementation of the war exclusion.
Because of the war, the industry suffered a shortage in salesmen and home-office employees. One particular specialty recruited to the war effort were the actuaries, needed for their mathematical skills. There was also a shortage of medical doctors. This put additional pressure on new life insurance sales. In response, companies began to extend their non-medical limits, allowing more life insurance sales to be placed without an examination.
To help those men and women who enlisted in the armed forces, the government stepped up, and by 1943 was the largest life insurance “company” in the country.
It is important to note that the Jim Crow laws were still in effect during this decade, and the life insurance industry was no exception. Much like the “white” companies, the negro companies weathered the Depression well, and came into the 1940s as strong as ever. In fact, these insurance companies were on the front lines of racial issues, as Dr. P.P. Cruezot, President of the National Negro Insurance Association, shared on a radio program the “manner in which forty-odd Negro life insurance companies are pioneering in the education, training, and higher standard of living for several million young men and women, and galvanizing the confidence between companies, the policyholders and the public.”
In 1940, the admitted assets of US life insurance companies totaled $30.8 billion. This was up from $15.9 billion in 1928. One interesting statistic: in 1940, throughout the US, there were 9 life insurance claims over $1 million, 2 of which were over S$2 million and 2 of which were over $3 million.
By 1942, sales had slumped due to war-time tax increases, decreases in the insurance workforce, and the gasoline rationing that made insurance sales much more difficult. Sales rebounded in 1943, and in 1944 sales reached a new peak of $148.4 billion in force. At the same time, claims and other benefit payments were also rising due to wartime losses, but the industry remained as stable as ever.
WOMEN IN INSURANCE IN THE EARLY 1940S
In general, the 1940s were a boon to women in the workplace. With men deployed oversees, women were sought to fill the vacancies men left behind. Even married women were being recruited to positions previously unimaginable for them. A Chicago Tribune article from 1942 reported a 300% increase in demand for female workers.
Women were even moving into top leadership positions where needed. An article from the Washington Post in 1942 discussed this, and also shared the downside of the situation – the fact that the men would return, and the women would be a problem when they did. One expert in employee relations was quoted as saying:
If this war lasts another year or two, women will move in large numbers into important executive and managerial positions. Then there’ll be the puzzler of what to do about it when the war is over and men come back.
The Metropolitan Life Insurance Company handled the situation in this way:
“In the last war Metropolitan moved women into executive positions. No successful method was found for demoting or advancing them when it was over. And, in the cases of some who still hold those jobs today, the situation is neither very satisfactory for the women nor the management. This time Metropolitan is not attempting to fill war-created vacancies job-for-job.”
Some saw the problem as self-correcting; women, they felt, would naturally leave the workforce to marry and become housewives just as the men were returning from war. Two surveys, both conducted in 1944, reflected the differing opinions. One survey of 50,000 employed women indicated that only 6% of these women intended to keep their current positions after the end of the war, and another 19% who would keep their jobs only if it did not replace returning service men. Another survey, conducted by the women’s advisory committee of the war manpower commission, reported that 71% of women intended to stay in the workplace and only 17% planned to return home.
By 1946, demand for female workers had dropped dramatically, and had shifted back to traditional jobs for women including teaching, secretarial work, and clerical positions.
In stark contrast to the previous decade where women were nearly invisible, women came back into focus in the life insurance industry as customers, sales representatives, and home-office workers. The industry now had a “whole new market” with so many women now entering the workforce.
Women purchased over 900,000 ordinary life policies in 1940, accounting for 20% of all sales. Over 50% of these purchases were made by business women, and 1/3 were housewives. Most frequently, the policies were purchased by women under the age of 30. By 1942, women accounted for 30% of total life insurance sales, and in 1943 sales to women were up to 35% of total sales. By 1944, women were buying 83% more life insurance than they did in 1942. Although the percent did increase over time, in general the amount of insurance purchased by women was roughly 50% of the face amount purchased by men.
One major step forward took place in 1947 when New York Life Insurance Company announced the election of their first female director. Mildred McAfee Horton also served as the president of Wellesley College. Upon her election, George L. Harrison, president of New York Life, stated “With a large number of women holding insurance or named as beneficiaries in policies, it is only natural that they should be represented on the directorate. The selection of Mrs. Horton indicates that my associates and I agree on the importance of having a woman on the board.”
WOMEN AS LIFE INSURANCE AGENTS
An article published in 1940, entitled “A Portfolio of Insurance Women,” profiled 13 different women who were forging their careers in the insurance industry. Quite obviously, these women had been engaged in insurance prior to 1940, and yet it is exceedingly difficult to find any mention of them before the decade turned over. These women were all agents (one managed the women’s division in a home office), working for companies such as Equitable in New York, Boston’s John Hancock agency, Fidelity Mutual, Penn Mutual, and Massachusetts Mutual. The article begins this way:
‘Insurance selling – what a job!’ So says Beatrice Jones, CLU (standing for Chartered Life Underwriter), New York insurance woman, supervisor of the women’s division of the Wilson Agency of the Equitable Life Assurance Society, chairman of the women’s division of the National Associate of Life Underwriters, and educational vice president of the New York Life Underwriters Association….’Selling life insurance,’ she says, ‘has put me to the test as no other work I ever did began to do, and yet I wouldn’t exchange it for anything.’
Another article from November of 1940 put the number of female life insurance agents in that year at 4,000, and citing a survey conducted by the Women’s Committee of the National Association of Life Underwriters, stated that these women had written policies on 956,000 people, providing $2.4 billion of life insurance protection for their families. The study showed that most women selling life insurance at that time were in their late 40s and sold 43% of their business to men.
In 1944, an article appeared in The Washington Post titled “Woman Agent in Insurance Here to Stay.” The author states:
Among the important changes that have taken place [during the years of the war] are: …The realization, on the part of life insurance agency executives, of the place of the woman agent in our business. Although there have been successful woman agents in life insurance for many years, and some have attained high honors, it took the war and the consequent manpower shortage to cause companies to recruit and train women in large numbers. There is nothing temporary about “women in life insurance” because they are being trained on a career basis.
There was still a strong bias against women’s financial competency and ability to conduct business during this time. Most men assumed that after the war women would return to their kitchens and living rooms. One particular lawyer, speaking to the American Society of Chartered Life Underwriters in 1944 highly recommended the practice of putting life insurance and other assets into family trusts in order to “protect [women] from their own weaknesses.”
In another talk, given to the women employees of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in 1946, the speaker claimed that the great tragedy of the war was the breakup of the home, and stated that “the key to peace was to be found in ‘three great roles’ for women, in the home, in the community and in seeking equity rather than equality.”
An interesting study was published in 1940 (Seder) looking at the differences between the vocational interest of professional women, and whether they differed from men. One of the test samples was of insurance salesmen and women, where she found that there was no indication of any difference between the two genders. In other words, contrary to thought of the day, women and men, when engaged in the same occupation, were likely to have similar interests. This was an important step forward in the women’s movement.
So, while women in general took a huge step forward during the war, then a small step back after the war, women in insurance continued to solidify their place in the workforce. The business still viewed them as “other,” but continued to recognize their importance to the future success of the industry.
Anonymous (1947). “Head of Women’s College Elected to Directorate of New York Life.” New York Times, Aug 21, 35.
Anonymous (1946). “Job Prospects for Graduates Termed Good.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Jun 24, 28.
Anonymous (1941). “Life Insurance Payments in Chicago Rise.” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 16, 29.
Anonymous (1942). “New Graduates Get Many More Offers of Jobs: Pay Is Much Higher; Women in Demand.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Oct 17, 25.
Anonymous (1941). “Women Big Buyers of Life Insurance.” The Washington Post, Sept 13, 13.
Anonymous (1940). “Women Gaining as Underwriters.” The Washington Post, Nov 6, 16.
Associated Press (1940). “Life Insurance Assets Top 30 Billion Dollars.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Dec 7, 23.
Gannett, Frank (1940). “Now is the Time to Act: Save the Nation from Chaos.” Delivered to the Connecticut Council of Republican Women, at the Bond Hotel, Harford, Conn., April 30.
MacKay, Ruth (1944). “White Collar Girl.” Chicago Daily Tribune, Mar 34, 17.
McCullough, Trudie (1942). “Women Now Hold Top Jobs In Business.” The Washington Post, Jul 12, R7.
Mitchell, Robert B. (1944). Review of Life Insurance in 1943. Journal of Risk and Insurance, 11(1), 61.
O’Donnell, Charles W. (1944). “Woman Agent in Insurance Here to Stay.” The Washington Post, Jan 2, R4.
Whitney, L. Baynard (1940). “Calvin’s Digest.” The Plaindealer (Kansas City, KS), 5-31, 7.