Women And The Trades In The 1940s
By Jim Olsztynski
World War II marked a watershed for women in the workforce. Even though workers were in short supply for wartime factories in the early 1940s, there was widespread resistance in the business world to employing women. Management in many sectors perceived women as ill-equipped with the industrial skills necessary to do the work. In the end they gave in simply because there was not enough MANpower available.
So the fabled “Rosie the Riveter” depicted on classic posters of the era was born of necessity, as factories needed to churn out enormous quantities of war material at the same time millions of male workers were off fighting the war. An estimated 6.5 million women joined the wartime work force. Until then, most working women had been single and young. Between 1940 and 1944, married women, most with husbands away on military service, made up over 72% of the total number of female employees. For many of them, it was the first full-time job they had ever held. By the end of the war, half of all female workers were over 35.
Yet then, even more than now, the plumbing-HVAC-electrical trades were largely devoid of females. A lot of this could be blamed on cultural attitudes of the era. In the 1940s the vast majority of construction work, and even residential service in the big cities, belonged to union shops. The construction unions of that era as well as their employers largely were of the same mind regarding the role of women in society. Trade associations and unions in the 1940s proudly hosted women’s auxiliaries in which the ladies could share recipes and organize various activities that lent support to their menfolk, but most tradesmen of the era could no more conceive of women journeymen than they could of men giving childbirth.
Social norms were not the only thing holding back women in the trades. A large practical consideration saw to it that Rosie was welcome in factories but not on construction sites or doing home repairs in any significant numbers. The work on many factory assembly lines could be mastered quickly to serve the war effort. On the other hand, training a skilled craft worker took years of apprenticeship, which demanded a substantial commitment of time and effort on the part of both employers and people aspiring to be craft workers. Most women of the era viewed that as unthinkable as their would-be employers.
The federal government during WWII established a National Defense Training Program in cooperation with vocational schools, businesses and other private institutions to ramp up industrial production. Under this program many women did get trained for a variety of semi-skilled trades, including sheet metal work, riveting, welding and operating various industrial machines. These programs typically lasted weeks or up to a few months, and the training tended to be job-specific for wartime factories. As soon as you learned to master a few key tasks or operate a particular machine, you were put to work.
One exception found in my research was in 1943, when almost 200 women electricians were doing all types of electrical wiring and maintenance work at the Oregon Shipbuilding Corp. in Portland. Most of the women were trained in electrical work at the National Defense Workers Training schools, and many held journeymen electrician ratings. I could find no mention of an upsurge of female electricians in the trade beyond that one reference, so I’m guessing this may have been a task-training program geared to shipbuilding. Of all the skilled trades, it would seem to make sense that women would find themselves most at home in electrical work. That field’s reliance on intricate wiring and relative lack of heavy lifting plays to women’s strengths more than plumbing or HVAC.
When the war ended, Rosie and her counterparts mostly left the factories and went back to homemaking — sometimes voluntarily and sometimes involuntarily laid off to make way for their menfolk returning from military service. By 1947, about a quarter of all American women worked outside the home, roughly the same number who had held such jobs in 1940 and far off the wartime peak of 36% in 1944.
Nonetheless, Rosie sparked a social awakening that would reverberate through ensuing decades, asserting that a woman’s place was not necessarily in the home. Society at-large had been given proof that they were an under-utilized asset to our nation’s economy. According to the latest Labor Department data, some 57% of women now hold jobs. The same percentage of women has college degrees and they have made significant inroads into once male-dominated professions. Women now represent about 34% of lawyers, 37% of doctors and 38% of journalists – all fields that had miniscule female participation in the 1940s.
Alas, the trades still lag far behind in employing women. Most estimates peg their numbers at merely 2% to 2.5% of today’s skilled trade workers. Despite numerous outreach programs, the trades still look uninviting to most women.