Antonette Chambers Noble
Historical Quarterly 59 Spring 1991
Local newspaper editorials, the Mormon church (expressed in the Relief Society Magazine), and Utah politicians encouraged women to return to their homes after the war. Even during the hostilities and at the height of the labor shortage these opinion makers had counseled a similar course. For example, in 1943 the Deseret News featured a motor pool driver who “would rather keep house but for the duration she prefers operating a truck.” Besides, she commented, “The work keeps me busy while my husband is away—I don’t think I worry so much.” The Ogden Standard Examiner featured female employees in war jobs in 1943. Their work was “fine for the duration, but Weber [College] enrollees are girls at heart. . . . It is nice to know we are as capable as men in their ‘own’ trades, but the future would take on rather a bleak aspect if we thought that was all there was to look forward to in the years to come.” Furthermore, the female workers were socially frustrated because their male coworkers “can’t picture us demure little souls in smart dresses and therefore never consider us as ideal ‘after hours’ companions. This plays havoc with our social life.” War jobs, concluded the article, are threatening to femininity and a woman’s potential dating career, powerful incentives, one may suppose, to leave a war job as soon as possible.
In 1944 the Salt Lake Tribune editorialized that women had proven themselves in industry but that the majority welcomed victory, most especially because it would allow them to return to their homes and families. In March 1945 the Salt Lake Council of Women surveyed war workers to discern their postwar plans. The study found that seven of eight women preferred the hearth and were in war jobs doing men’s work only for the duration. The Relief Society Magazine, throughout the war, opposed Mormon women working outside their homes. As the war’s end neared, the message became stronger. For example, an October 1944 editorial, “Home, After the War,” asked, “Have the eyes of some in this day been so full of greediness that mothers have put in jeopardy the very souls of their children?” The article continued, “the great majority, it is hoped, of the men will be coming back; war industries will cease, and the returning members of the armed forces must be given the opportunity to once more earn livelihoods for themselves and their families . . . ” Public officials further encouraged women to return to their homes when hostilities ceased. Governor Maw claimed there was no pressure on the working women to leave the work force, though he did encourage them to “give way to their husbands.”
War jobs ended for a variety of reasons; not surprisingly, the largest number (28%) was caught in the postwar “reduction of force.” Fourteen percent terminated their war work for miscellaneous reasons such as sexual harassment, transportation or childcare difficulties, or health problems. Another eight percent quit because the war had ended. “My husband didn’t want me to work anymore,” said Dora Webb. “It was the policy to be replaced by men who served,” answered another. Eight percent discontinued their work to go to school, nineteen percent to marry or to follow a husband, and twelve percent for family reasons. Many of the latter women were pregnant. Despite public encouragement to return home after the war many women remained in the labor force. In most cases, though, the jobs available to women during the war, notably those classified as traditional “male work,” were not offered to women in postwar years . . . When hostilities ceased, the reality of a tight job market for women became even more evident. Employers advertised in newspapers specifically for male workers, especially veterans.
Requests for women workers did continue after August 1945, but they were distinctly different from the jobs offered during the war years. A month after victory, labor leaders Clarence L. Palmer, state Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) president, and J. R. Wilson, state American Federation of Labor (AFL) secretary, said that Utah industry was “too tough for women.” They “opposed married women holding jobs in a tight labor market” except for financial need. The Labor Department published the pamphlet Retool Your Thinking for Your Job Tomorrow. “Girls who wake up after the war without a job can’t say they weren’t warned,” threatened the booklet. The Labor Department’s advice was to obtain training, especially secretarial skills. Dorothy Lemmon lost her wartime job in the tool room at Tooele Ordnance Depot to a returning G. I. She was placed in the secretarial pool where she remained until her retirement. Lemmon and the G. I. accepted the situation. “He felt bad, too,” recalled Dorothy.
The War Manpower Commission reported in December 1945 that fewer jobs were available for women, and fewer women were seeking employment. Furthermore, there was a shortage of women filling traditional female jobs. The commission suggested, “Local married women with employed husbands who are holding [traditionally male] jobs would be performing a patriotic service if they resigned such positions and thus created jobs for men who are in much worse need of jobs.” Women who wanted to work in the postwar years were advised to select traditionally female, or “pink collar,” jobs. When Clearfield Naval Supply Depot published a history as part of its ten-year anniversary in 1953 the pictures of personnel taken during the war included women in all kinds of work. Later photographs showed women only in traditional or secretarial roles. Some women, however, were able to find work similar to their war jobs. For a few of the research sample the war working experience was an important steppingstone in their careers. Twelve percent of the sample remained in the same line of work they had entered during the war. For example, Grace M. McLean began her career as an ammunition inspector during the war. When she retired in April 1978 she was the only woman explosives safety specialist in the U. S. Air Force.
Individual income rose sharply in the state during World War II, a fact that was particularly appreciated after the harsh depression. Gloria McNally reported that the war “set us up financially. We never were behind economically after that.” Renee Christensen’s family purchased its first record player, installed a telephone, and bought a natural gas stove, water heater, and typewriter “while mom worked at Remington.” The Standard Parachute Company had a crucial economic impact on the Manti community. Parachute seamstresses bought family necessities with the paychecks. Workers’ purchases included shoes for the children, living room furniture, and installation of indoor plumbing.
War jobs offered higher salaries than other work. Local employers complained that high wage scales made it difficult for them to compete for workers. Even though war industries paid women more than other community jobs and more than they had earned prior to the war, women were often paid less than men. Female typists, stenographers, and cardpunch operators generally were paid between $1,260 and $1,440 per year at the military installations. Men at the same plant working as crane operators, electricians, blacksmiths, and steamers were paid $1,860. Men were also paid higher wages than women in similar work because the men’s work was often judged more difficult. For instance, the Tooele Ordnance Depot Salvage Department paid women 67.5 cents an hour, but teenage boys in the same department earned 85 cents an hour because they did heavy lifting . . . .Some pay discrepancies were more blatant. “The base pay for unskilled men will be $4.00 per day and the women will receive $3.75 per day as a starting pay,” announced the War Manpower Commission in 1941 in Ogden. A year later it reported that in Salt Lake City “The Cudahy Packing Co. is employing women to replace men in many departments, but these women are not paid at the same wage scale as male employees.”
Several historians of women war workers argue that the World War II working experience was a watershed for women. For the first time large numbers of married and older women entered the labor force. More significant, these women remained in the work place, permanently changing the female labor force from its prewar young and unmarried character to a postwar older (over thirty-five) married composition. Society accepted older and married women working during the wartime emergency and affirmed its approval in the immediate postwar years. The war also opened new doors for women by stimulating personal, social, and economic involvement beyond the home. These experiences inaugurated some of the fundamental changes in women’s status that have occurred since 1945.
This study of Utah women war workers provides support for the interpretation that the war induced lasting changes in women’s roles. The most obvious transition is in female labor force participation during and after the war. Furthermore, the majority of Utah women who worked after 1940 were older than those in the prewar period. The majority of the Utah postwar female workers were also married; women who were married and/or over thirty-five years of age joined the work force as never before. The war had induced them to leave the home, and their continued presence in the labor force overshadowed that of young and unmarried women. The expanded participation of married and older women in the labor force after the war suggests a social tolerance or even acceptance of this new trend. Furthermore, the prewar depression practice by the state government and private businesses of firing women upon marriage was not reinstated in Utah or elsewhere in the nation. The increased availability of employment also eased the entrance of women into the work force. Perhaps, too, more married women had to work after the 1940s because one breadwinner could no longer meet the escalating financial demands of middle-class life. Two incomes were needed to match inflation and to keep up with society’s materialistic values. Rather than working outside the home for pin money, women have most often entered the labor force because of financial necessity. Marie W. Galloway, a Remington Small Arms Plant worker, said at the closing of the plant that she planned to continue working because “I have to.”
Working women point to the war experience as a critical junction in their lives. Those interviewed stressed that they had experienced personal growth from war work. When asked if the war had an influence on them, eighty-one percent of the sample responded positively. “I developed more confidence in my ability to face new challenges,” and “I felt very good about myself, because I was contributing to my country” were typical responses. “I knew I could do housework but not sure I could do work like this—but I did,” said Odessa Young Mower. For several women war work brought them in contact with people different from themselves for the first time. Associating with people of various ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds was an educational experience made possible in the war industries. Several respondents commented on the feelings of autonomy and independence brought about by having their own paychecks. This meant not having to be dependent upon their husbands for an income. For a few, a paycheck paid for an education, probably not affordable otherwise. Personal gains were therefore numerous: confidence, career possibilities, pride, tolerance for other people, autonomy, and for some, an education.
When analyzing the results of the working experience, the ugly realities of war must be considered also. The war often affected the women workers, for it was a rare war worker who did not have a family member or friend in military service. Day-to-day workers felt the anxiety of wondering if he, or in some instances she, were alive. The war became a daily reality on the job. Workers at the Ogden Arsenal who handled equipment salvaged from the battlefields remember bloodstains on much of it. War worker Ellen Jenkins found notes from American G. I.s between gun parts. She turned the notes over to authorities, never knowing what happened to them. Workers on planes at Hill Field cleaned blood, skin, and hair out of the insides of cockpits. Pilots often left messages and drawings inside their planes. “This brought home the reality of what was happening,” reported one worker. Macel Anderson received two letters from the federal government stating that the parachutes she had worked on had saved two boys’ lives. Each parachute had the maker’s name on it. “That made the whole sacrifice of working worthwhile,” commented Macel. Perhaps, added to the impact of the women’s working experience, was a deeper understanding of how wretched war was. These women experienced it quite closely, despite the battlefields being thousands of miles away.
One would suspect that the Utah case study would be unique, rather than similar to the national experience of women during the war because of the dominance of the Mormon church. The patriarchal church discouraged women from participating in the work place and strongly encouraged them to remain at home. Yet, Mormon women both during and after World War II entered the Utah labor market in large numbers. When Latter-day Saint members of the research sample were asked about conflict between their church and the decision to work, no one indicated any problems. Their desire to contribute patriotically to their country and their need for a paycheck outweighed the Mormon church’s message not to work outside the home. Perhaps, then, what is most noteworthy about the Utah experience is how similar it was to the national experience.
The historical debate over the war’s impact on women has created sharp divisions. For some, the war generated lasting social and economic changes for women. Others acknowledged that the war brought unprecedented opportunities for women but characterized these changes as temporary and with few lasting results. The Utah case, mirroring the national experience, suggests that elements of both interpretations are valid. The war did spur a changed female labor force composition, the effect of which is still being felt. Also, women war workers experienced personal growth. Yet, permanent on-the-job changes did not occur because the war did not eliminate pay inequality and job segregation, problems that continue to plague American women workers.