Female machinist, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California, 1942. Photo by Alfred T. Palmer
On September 19, 1945, 24 fired female employees of the Lindstrom Tool and Toy Company in Bridgeport, Connecticut picketed outside the factory in protest of their firing. It led to nothing, but this brief action is a window into the treatment of women workers during and immediately after World War II.
Our memory of women workers during World War II is one of women bravely going into industrial work during the war to replace men, personified by the “We Can Do It” poster that claims to be Rosie the Riveter, but is in fact not and is rather an anti-union image created by Westinghouse (as opposed to the real Rosie the Riveter). Then, the men came back home and the women left those jobs to return home to a domesticated 1950s. But reality was a lot more complicated. First, women had worked in industrial labor for a long time. They were forced into low-paying work in the textile industry, piecework, and other forms labor, ranging from teaching to prostitution. Second, many of the women who found industrial work during World War II wanted to keep those jobs after the war. They were proud of their work and proud of the physical prowess they demonstrated in doing that work effectively.
The government actively recruited women to fill the jobs that men once held before they entered the military. Preparation for World War II ended the Great Depression and full employment dawned, but there was huge employer resistance to hiring women and especially African-Americans. The government moved to solve these problems, in the case of African-Americans only after significant organizing, but with white women through a recruiting campaign combine with the reality of employers needing to fulfill the wartime contracts. Propaganda campaigns recruited women that emphasized their patriotism. Millions of women entered industrial work during the war.
But neither employers nor unions had any interest in keeping these women on the job after the war concluded. Unions may have represented women during the war, but they believed as strongly as employers did that these were male jobs. In most factories, women made less than men, but the male unionists did not want to fight for higher wages for women, even as they feared women taking their jobs because they were cheaper. Meanwhile, women faced special sorts of discrimination. In 1942, the Highland Park Ford plant sent women workers home for wearing bright clothing because they feared it would arouse the passions of the male workers. The women openly defied the bosses and management caved. United Auto Workers locals were openly hostile to women participating in union affairs. Sexual harassment from both fellow workers and employers was endemic. Foremen routinely demanded sexual favors from women workers and both employers and fellow workers catcalled women all the time.
During the war, women often had the worst jobs and they received less pay than men for the same work. That was especially true for black women, but they still moved into factories in large numbers. In 1940, nearly 60 percent of employed black women labored as domestic, and only 6 percent worked in factories. By 1946, only 48 percent worked as domestics and 18 percent worked in factories. Of the 1 million black workers entering the paid labor force for the first time during World War II, 600,000 were women. They faced special discrimination. A 1943 UAW survey showed that even at the height of the war, 74 out of the 280 establishments survey refused to hire black women. A study the same year by the National Metal Trades Association showed that only 29 of 62 survey plants that used women had hired black women. Women, black and white, were often doing two jobs during the war–factory work and then unpaid housework, whether they were single mothers, their husbands were away at the war, or they were taking care of family members. Overall, the percentage of married women working for pay outside the home rose from 15.2 percent in 1940 to 24 percent in 1945. Perhaps not coincidentally, divorce rates rose from 8.8 per 1000 marriages in 1940 to 14.4 in 1945.
When the Lindstrom workers picketed in September 1945, they were outraged not only because they were fired. It was the company demeaned them through saying they lacked the physical strength to perform the job, even though they had done so quite effectively for the past three years. They were not only the only fired women to picket during this time. In August 1946, 300 fired bus drivers in Detroit held an action at city hall, demanding reinstatement, seniority credit for their work, and specific recognition that women had the right to hold that job. In October 1946, women protested at the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company in Bessemer, Alabama after the company dismissed 430 women that were married or were “inclined to marry.”
Women still worked after the war. Of the 3.5 million women workers who lost their jobs in the year after the war, 2.75 million started a new job in the same time period. They wanted to work. They needed to work. They continued to work at growing rates. In 1955, 46 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 64 worked for wages and by 1965 that rose to 51 percent. The need and desire to work was especially true if women were single mothers or just single, but even if they were married, rising consumer standards made women working desirable even if their husband had a decent full-time union job. The unions did not help. The Highland Park Ford plant fired 103 women in April 1945 without following seniority procedures. The women protested what was a violation of the union contract, but the UAW was indifferent and even hostile, removing flyers about a workers’ meeting to address this from billboards. These women fought for their rights and it eventually led to 400 women being brought back by 1947, but this was after more than 5000 had been laid off.
Ultimately, women would continue to face significant discrimination on the job and from unions for a very long time. They still continue to face a lot of pay discrimination today. Most unions have gotten a lot better thanks to women fighting within the labor movement for their rights and many are women-led, but some of the building trades, bastions of masculinity, remain hostile to women on the job.
This post borrowed extensively from George Lipsitz, Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s.
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