Women and ‘Men’s Work’ During the War Years.

Women and ‘Men’s Work’ During the War Years.

By Mary Martha Thomas

Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 31, 38-39

Riveting and Rationing in Dixie: Alabama Women and the Second World War by Mary Martha Thomas. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1987.145 pp. $16.95, cloth.)

Beyond the dull, dull, dull style there’s an impressive research job and an intriguing view of social change in Riveting and Rationing in Dixie.

Some women, of course, had always worked outside the home, notably blacks and poor whites. But the war, for the first time, created a large need for women to fill tradition-

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ally male occupations. Thus the female labor force increased by 6.5 million from 1940-45, and the proportion of women who were employed increased from 25 to 36 percent.

As always, race mattered. “Before the war, white women had worked in laundries, restaurants, hotels, and retail and wholesale trade. These are all fields characterized by low pay and poor working conditions.” During the war, white women moved up to higher-paying male jobs. Some black women moved up from “from agriculture and domestic work to the trade and service jobs that the white women had vacated.”

The engineers of the war effort–all male, naturally–faced two large problems: first, to convince housewives to take jobs in manufacturing and labor; second, to convince the women to give the jobs up when the war was over and the heads of households had come home.

This inherent conflict led to rather schizophrenic recruitment. Some ad campaigns depicted welders–helmets

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pushed back–applying lipstick, to show that femininity could be undiminished in a temporary male job. Meanwhile, women workers at the Huntsville Arsenal were being called “modern Amazons.” A foreman bragged on “a slim girl, weighing merely 105 pounds but ‘can take it’ better than any man he ever saw.”

Author Mary Martha Thomas, a history professor at Jacksonville State University, observes a “certain uneasiness about women assuming these new roles.” Early in the war effort, she writes, Alabamians supported the effort to recruit women to the war effort with a great concern over day care and other obstacles to working women. But by 1943, “social workers, the press and the public shifted their concern to what they saw as the rising tide of juvenile delinquency” and called on women to “pay more attention to their maternal duties.” Similarly, women’s leaders began as early as 1942 to argue that women, substituting so well in other areas for men, should be allowed to serve on juries. But a committee of the Alabama House of Representatives defeated such a proposal in 1945.

By 1950, statewide female employment was only slightly higher than in 1940. In short, says Thomas, the “forces of continuity seem to have prevailed over the forces of change during the war years in Alabama.”