Slacks, Not Slackers – Women’s Role in Winning World War II

posted on March 8, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Gladys Theus, welder in Kaiser Richmond shipyard #2 who won “fastest welder” contest, 10/15/1944. Photo by E.F. Joseph; courtesy Careth Reid collection.

March 8 – International Women’s Day.

Women played a vital role in the World War II home front. But advancements in workplace equality didn’t come easily. Women faced significant hurdles at the start, and then had to struggle for recognition afterward. Still, women who worked in the Kaiser shipyards helped lay the groundwork for a new era that included, among other advances, greater employment opportunities and child care options.

Breaking Down Employment Barriers

Women were initially excluded from membership in the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America, the largest union in the WWII shipyards and a gateway to employment there. So, on September 8, 1942, women welders and burners, representing hundreds barred from war production jobs in the new Marinship Corporation shipyards at Sausalito, stormed Boilermakers Local No. 6 offices in San Francisco, demanding the right to work. These white women were the first excluded group to win full admission to the Boilermakers Union.

The impact of women going into previously male-dominated occupations was the subject of heated public discussion. Just as they had during World War I, women in industry raised eyebrows as they donned trousers, overalls, and the more modern equivalent – slacks.

As National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin points out, black women would later be allowed work, but only through a second-tier level of the union, and after black men had gotten jobs.

Medical checkup at Kaiser Oregonship child development center, circa 1944

First Steps for Child Care

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Kaiser Company shipyard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, on April 5, 1943 to personally launch the new aircraft carrier U.S.S. Casablanca. But Eleanor was more interested in the social programs affiliated with the massive shipbuilding projects, including child care, prepared meals for double-duty women, and health care.

President Roosevelt, at Eleanor’s suggestion, had supported the first government-sponsored child care center in the summer of 1942 under the Lanham Act. But this was private industry. Henry J. Kaiser listened to her and responded by introducing two controversial (at the time) programs for shipyard workers – model child care facilities near two of the shipyards and pre-cooked meals for working moms. These centers at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California, and Portland, Oregon, yielded valuable research results that helped fuel the study of early childhood education for decades after the war.

International Women’s Day – a  time to reflect, a time to plan.

 

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2G59epj

Leave a Reply

We cannot accept comments from users under the age of 13. Please do not include any medical, personal or confidential information in your comment. Conversation is strongly encouraged; however, Kaiser Permanente reserves the right to moderate comments on this blog as necessary to prevent medical, personal and confidential information from being posted on this site. In addition, Kaiser Permanente will remove all spam, personal attacks, profanity, and off topic commentary. Finally, we reserve the right to change the posting guidelines at any time, at our sole discretion.