When the war began, American society largely regarded the proper role of women was that of homemaker and mother. The exceptions were such “women’s work” roles as store clerk, waitress, laundress, secretary, telephone operator, teacher and a few other careers. But with millions of men voluntarily or through conscription entering the military that attitude had to quickly change before the growing labor shortage crippled the country’s ability to be the “arsenal of democracy.” America’s entry into the war was about ten months old when, on October 17, 1942, the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs (now the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation) prepared to kick off its fourth annual National Business Women’s Week. To commemorate that event, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a letter to the organization’s president, Dr. Minnie L. Maffett, one designed to rally America’s women and make them active participants in the war effort.
“The hand that rocks the cradle can also run a drill press.”
—“Beauty Kits for Bonuses” Nation’s Business magazine
Roosevelt didn’t mince words, writing, “There need no longer be any debate as to the place of women in the business life of this nation. The enlarging war effort calls for the services of every qualified and able-bodied person, man or woman.
“Millions of women will have to take part in the production program, replacing men whose services will be needed in the armed forces or elsewhere than in their accustomed jobs.” He called on the organization to adopt his suggestion to mobilize “women in war work.” It was a national call to action spurred by the stark reality that, as Doris Weatherford wrote in her book American Women and World War II, “Production was essential to victory, and women were essential to production.”
As early as February 1942, women were responding to local calls to enter the workforce. Though the higher pay of defense industry jobs was certainly attractive (an average of 60 to 90 cents an hour plus overtime in a 48 hour workweek, compared to non-war work that averaged 45 cents an hour), many women signed on for patriotic reasons. One woman’s comment was typical: “My brother went into the Army, and now I feel that I’m in the fight, too.”
From “lingerie to camouflage netting; from baby carriages to field-hospital food carts; from lipstick cases to bomb fuses; . . . from ribbons and silk goods to parachutes; from beer cans to hand grenades; . . . from vacuum cleaners to gas-mask parts” women—called “production soldiers”—joined in the conversion.
As Labor Secretary Frances Perkins wrote in her Monthly Labor Review, as factories converted from “lingerie to camouflage netting; from baby carriages to field-hospital food carts; from lipstick cases to bomb fuses; . . . from ribbons and silk goods to parachutes; from beer cans to hand grenades; . . . from vacuum cleaners to gas-mask parts” women—called “production soldiers”—joined in the conversion.
Initially women often encountered resentment and resistance from the male plant managers and foremen. Resistance was particularly strong in the tradition-bound shipbuilding industry. But even there women won over skeptical bosses. A government publication reported at the end of 1942 that shipyards “were practically unanimous in reporting that on the whole the work done by women was considered equal to that of men. . . . Foremen . . . often found that women were quicker to learn than the men available [and] exhibited a greater interest than did the men and were more anxious to know ‘why’ and ‘how.’”
Even dangerous work didn’t daunt women. On her first day of work at a shipyard, Virginia Wilkinson clambered into position high on a scaffold. Looking down at the concrete surface far below, she asked her mentor whether people often fell from the scaffold. “Not often,” he replied. “Just once.”
It was a rare factory that had less than 45 percent of its workforce composed of women. In some industries it got as high as 80 percent.
It was a rare factory that had less than 45 percent of its workforce composed of women. In some industries it got as high as 80 percent. The aircraft industry was the most open to hiring women. It was a new industry with few of the prejudices held by older, more established industries. One company, Minneapolis-based Strato Equipment, a designer of high-altitude pressure suits for pilots, had a woman workforce of 100 percent. The only male in the factory was “a department store dummy.”
Inequities did exist, particularly in pay where women often were paid less then their male counterparts. That, and racial prejudice in the era of Jim Crow, would not be solved during the war. But women proved themselves in the workforce—and then some. In his postwar account, WHILE YOU WERE GONE: A Report on Wartime Life in the United States, former Chairman of the War Production Board Donald Nelson summarized the working woman’s achievements, writing, “This is for the record: for nine years before Pearl Harbor, Germany, Italy and Japan prepared intensively for war, while as late as 1940 the war production of peaceful America was virtually nothing. Yet two years later the output of our war factories equaled that of the three Axis nations combined. In 1943 our war production was one and one half times, and in 1944, more than double Axis war production—a remarkable demonstration of power.”