Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II Excerpt

Excerpt from Chapter Four

Getting Ready for War

“The great arsenal for democracy”


The story of women workers in World War II begins with the story of America’s extraordinary industrial mobilization. According to Donald Nelson, head of the War Production Board, “This is the record: For nine years before Pearl Harbor, German, 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.”

Anticipating America’s involvement in the war, FDR called in May 1940 for an increase in production of material (equipment, apparatus, and supplies)—more than a year and a half before Pearl Harbor. “I believe that this nation should plan at this time a program that would provide us with fifty thousand military and naval planes,” he said in a speech to Congress. In December, FDR announced that the United States “must be the great arsenal for democracy.”

Throughout 1940, U.S. industry increased its production of war material. As new jobs were created, the number of unemployed people dropped, finally signaling the end of the Great Depression. Men were the first people hired, but as the need for workers increased, employers slowly began hiring women. In early 1941, Vultee Aircraft Company in Los Angeles, California, hired twenty-five women. In East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, the Springfield Armory hired fourteen women.

Still, many employers refused to hire women. According to the men in charge, women did not have the physical strength, mechanical ability, and emotional stability to do high-paying, skilled factory jobs.  In addition, employers said, the presence of women would distract men.

Discrimination in the workplace was nothing new for women. It had existed throughout American history. With few exceptions, women had been barred from jobs or professionals that paid well or had status.

The barriers against women workers had been heightened by the Great Depression, when jobs were very scarce. Married women bore the brunt of the prejudice because many people thought that one salary should be enough to support any family. Law were passed that prohibited married women from getting jobs in local government. During the 1930-31 school years, a survey of fifteen hundred school districts reported that 77 percent of the districts refused to hire married women and 63 percent of them fired women teachers if they married. In 1936, 82 percent of all Americans said that wives should not work if their husbands had a job.  In 1939, 84 percent of insurance companies and 65 percent of banks put limits on married women working.

But in early 1941, anticipating the need to hire at least some women workers to fill the increasing number of defense jobs, the U.S. government made efforts to encourage the employment of women.   A federal agency produced a ten-minute film, “Women in Defense.”  It was written by FDR’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and narrated by the popular actress, Katharine Hepburn. The film showed women in a variety of roles—including a scientist, a factory worker, and a Red Cross volunteer. “This woman is a modern pioneer” was one of the lines that Hepburn repeated many times in the film.

Several federal officials spoke out and urged defense industries to use women. Mary Anderson, head of the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, announced that there were nearly two million women available to work in defense industries. She worked at establishing job-training programs for women. . . .

As America geared up for war, it became clear that black Americans were going to be needed in the military and in defense jobs.  However, black soldiers were assigned to segregated units and black workers were often kept out of defense jobs.  So many black Americans rallied together to insist that they be treated on an equal basis with white people.  A widely circulated black newspaper announced a “Double V” campaign: one V of victory overseas against dictators, the other V for victory on the home front against discrimination . . . .

On February 10, 1942, the last new automobile that would be produced until the war ended in 1945 rolled off the assembly line.  For the duration of the war, auto plants produced tanks, jeeps, and all kinds of weapons.  At the cost of $65 million, which the U.S. government paid, the Ford Motor Company constructed a new half-mile-long building for the production of bombers.  At the height of production, one bomber was produced every hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.  Other new factories were built: the Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Company built a huge new plant in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, to produce crankshafts, links, propeller shafts, and master rods for aircraft engines.  New shipyards were built and old ones were expanded.

Elsie Rossio remembers how her “very small, very quiet farming community” of Seneca, Illinois, was transformed: “In early 1942 we began hearing rumors that a shipyard was coming to Seneca, but many of us did not really believe it until one morning we were awakened in the wee hours by the sound of huge trucks moving down Main Street.  Just a few days later, the sound of jackhammers and the rat-a-tat-tat of carpenters’ hammers began echoing day and night.  The site of the shipyards and dock were at the southeast corner of town on the banks of the Illinois River, but you could hear the jackhammers everywhere.”  The first ships as completed five months after the shipyard was built on the pastures.  According to an article in the New York Times with the headline “Welder Launches Tank-Landing Ship,” seven thousand people attended the launching, and “Mrs. Harriet Williamson, 30 years old, widowed mother of three little girls, who learned welding and helped build the ship, smashed a bottle of champagne against the vessel. Her husband was killed in a munitions plant explosion. In recognition of her courage, the company and fellow-employees gave her and the children war bonds, a medal, and other awards, besides giving her the role of  honor at today’s launching.”

American’s industrial mobilization would require a staggering number of workers for traditionally male jobs at a time when millions of men were leaving the home front for the battlefront.  So it was just a matter of time before America would be forced to deal with its entrenched attitudes about women’s roles and capabilities.