Feb 11, 2014
Women's Work in World War II; Torrington Talk and Exhibit
Although no one today gives a second thought to women in the work place, it always hasn't been like that. Prior to World War II, the concept was novel, and even frowned upon in some cases.
"Women who were married were expected to stay at home—it was a common social belief," says John Cilio, author of Women's Work in World War II, who will be discussing that topic on February 27 at the Torrington Public Library at 6:30 p.m. "It was also a common social belief that women couldn't work long hours, and that they couldn't keep secrets."
World War II changed all that. As men were drafted to fight in the war, it left a serious labor shortage on the home front. In order to keep the factories churning and businesses afloat—as well as support the war effort—women suddenly found themselves being recruited into the work force with incentives such as equal pay and child daycare. Soon, women were on assembly lines, working in manufacturing plants, driving buses and taking on other jobs that had been formerly thought of as "man's work."
"We all know about lumberjacks—they were some of the first to join up, so women filled their positions—they were called lumber jills," says Cilio, an author of six other history books who has collected hundreds of photographs of women in the work force, many of which he shares during his presentation. "Women became 50 percent of the work force in every kind of job—although I couldn't find a woman train engineer. That was about the only kind of job I couldn't find."
Miss Susan Bear designed spinner assemblies in the Engineering Department of Hamilton Standard Propellers in East Hartford, Connecticut. (Hamilton Standard Propellers)
Women also pushed for more active roles in the actual military effort itself. "In 1940, before the war began, there was a movement sponsored by Eleanor Roosevelt and some congresswomen who wanted to have women in the military," says Cilio. "And there was lots of debate. And in front of Congress, some admiral actually said, 'We'd rather have ducks, dogs or donkeys rather than women in the Navy.' The perspective of women was so different."
Still, women were finally allowed to participate directly in military via such entities such as the Women's Army Corps (or WACS), although there were certain restrictions in many cases. "The military wouldn't let them be doctors in the combat zone because they might see things that they shouldn't see," says Cilio with a laugh. "I mean, the nurse was standing right next to the doctor, but heaven forbid you have a female doctor there dealing with all that."
There were also other challenges of integrating the all-male military. "I talked to another woman, who is the oldest-surviving female Marine from World War II—she's 103," says Cilio, pointing out that the Marines were the last branch to allow females to serve, although when they did, women were "Marines," not auxiliaries, and were taught to use a weapon, paid the same amount of money and held the same same ranks. "She said, 'John, there's one thing you probably won't hear from a lot of people, but the propaganda was that they wanted us to join, they needed us to join.'" That wouldn't turn out to be the case.
Cilio says: "She goes, 'They had 35 jobs when we first started that they'd let a women do. By the end of the war, there was about 235 different jobs ranging from guiding airplanes to flying planes. But the real nut was that they really didn't want us. After you were in, it was clear that the senior officers didn't want us, didn't like us, didn't want us to do anything. I would've never joined if I had known that.''"
Miss Ida Hicks worked at the American Railway Express Company sorting, weighing, and delivering packages. The New Britain, Connecticut, job paid seventy-nine and one-half cents an hour. (Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information, Gordon Parks)
A lot of that prejudice proved to be misplaced. Cilio tells another story. "I talked to one woman who's 94 now, who had joined the Coast Guard. She could remember the say she signed up—she's standing near the window in Boston, and as she's doing her swearing in, the wind unfurled the flag outside, she remembered everything. She goes, 'One of the things I did—I learned Morse code, of course—my job was to vector airplanes over ships in convoys along the coast because so many ships were being sunk. One morning, about 4 a.m., I got an alert in code that said the Queen Mary was leaving Boston harbor with 4,000 troops, here are the points to have airplanes [escort it]. So I vectored everything, it was safe, but I never told anyone that I had anything to do with that until after the war because they thought we couldn't keep secrets.''"
Of course, as everyone realizes now, women were more than capable of serving in the military and being a vital part of the work force. World War II, however, was the real impetus behind that as it provided women opportunities to prove their equality on a large scale.
"Suddenly, the myths were starting to disappear," says Cilio. "Women could work long hours. Women could do detailed work. Women could keep secrets."
Once women had success and won acceptance in the work force, there was no real turning back. Even as the end of the war came and women could back to their roles as homemakers, they didn't necessarily want to. "When [leaders] were questioned 'how are we going handle reconversion with all the women?', [the answer was] 'No problem, just send them all back home, that's where they belong,'" says Cilio. "But the women were like 'Wait a minute! I'm getting paid a good salary, I've learned skilled work, I belong to the union—I don't want to give that up.' So it all really caused some change."
He adds: "Because of what they did, and because they did it so well, when it came time to Congress having to vote in the 1960s on all sorts of gender-neutrality legislation, there wasn't any argument left because it was only 15 years after the war, it was near enough that people couldn't argue that point."
Cilio's lecture coincides with the Smithsonian's exhibit "The Way We Worked," which is at the Warner Theatre until mid March. It is also in conjunction with the CT Humanities.
Cilio will also present the same lecture at Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield on May 22.
Women's Work in World War II; Torrington Talk and Exhibit