Sunday, April 21, 2019

Working at the Navy Yard

Susan B. Anthony II (1916–1991)
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1944–1946

Chippers removing excess metal from welded seams in a shipyard, 1942. National Archives.
During World War II, package designer Josephine B. von Miklos answered the call to patriotic duty (it felt wrong “to continue designing pretty things during the war”) and applied for a job in a munitions plant. After a year of working on the assembly line, she published the memoir I Took a War Job, in which she described the dreariness of her new occupation:
The number of bombers and of shells is so enormous that it doesn't really mean anything to the average man, except, somehow, that there is a great deal of excitement and glamour in these numbers. Maybe there is. But there isn't any glamour and excitement in making bombers and shells. That is just a job, a job to be done day after day, carefully and deliberately, with every person doing a certain thing, doing it exactly the same way, maybe a hundred times a day, or a thousand times, or five thousand times. Doing it over and over and over each day. There is no excitement in doing a thing over and over. There is no glamour in pressing a lever five thousand times a day.
Von Miklos was one of millions of women ordnance workers (WOWs) who found employment in the defense industries, the best known of whom is the fictitious Rosie the Riveter. Not yet famous was nineteen-year-old Norma Jeane Dougherty. Her husband away at the war, she had been hired to spray fire retardant on radio planes ten hours a day in a factory in Van Nuys, California, “The work isn’t easy at all,” she wrote in a letter, in which she also complained about the “wolves” who worked at the plant and in the Army. During the last year of the war, she posed for a photographer assigned by Capt. Ronald Reagan to get pictures of working women for a feature in Yank, The Army Weekly. Although none of the photos were never used, she would later credit the photographer, David Conover, for launching her modeling and acting career nearly two years before she took the stage name Marilyn Monroe.

The selling of the WOW image—the “excitement and glamour” scornfully dismissed by von Miklos—became an important part of the recruitment and retention of women into wartime industries, including munitions factories, shipyards, and aircraft and tank manufacturers. Both the government and several of the largest companies created print ads, including Westinghouse’s famous “We Can Do It!” poster and Adolph Treidler’s “My Girl’s a WOW” and “She’s a WOW” series. The red-and-white bandana seen in these images, worn as a simplified turban, was adopted by women working for the Ordnance Department; “Every woman in your plant will want one—it’s a ‘WOW’ for morale,” exclaimed one advertisement. WOW clubs were encouraged by personnel managers at some—but certainly not all—workplaces; the chapters hosted picnics, parties, and other recreational activities. Only a small percentage of workers ever joined one of the local organizations—a May 1943 Business Week article estimates 33,000 members at various plants—and there was no official structure or association that organized WOWs nationally.*

Formerly a reporter for the Washington Star, Susan B. Anthony II—the great-niece of the famous suffragist—also became an ordnance worker. The drastic changes in the labor force inspired her to write her first book, Out of the Kitchen—Into the War: Women’s Winning Role in the Nation’s Drama (1943). “The actual key to Victory in this war,” she argued, “is the extrication of women—all women—from the relative unproductivity of the kitchen, and the enrolling of them in the high productivity of factory, office and field.” She was particularly critical of the government’s emphasis on nutrition and food preparation in an era of wartime shortages: “For three years, various officials in the Department of Agriculture, the Federal Security Agency and other agencies have advised on ‘war time nutrition.’ For three years, they have obtusely ignored the fact that working women and their families need more than mere advice on how to feed themselves. They need a network of low-cost cafeterias such as the British have.”

During the war, she also collaborated with Mildred Fairchild and Ann Wentworth Shyne, both of Bryn Mawr College, to publish the tract Women During the War and After (1945), a summary of a 600-page report they compiled in 1944. While she worked on the report, she wrote an essay for The New Republic describing her own experience as an employee at the Washington Navy Yard, and we present her account as our Story of the Week selection.

* Some of the information about WOWs is from Doris Weatherford’s American Women During World War II: An Encyclopedia (2009).

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My first night on the midnight shift day at Washington Navy Yard, I met Esther, a fellow ordnance worker, who ran the machine next to mine. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.