Women, the Workplace, and World War II

presented by the Historical Society of Easton

1943 Poster depicting Rosie the Riveter

Looking back at U.S. history, it’s almost unimaginable that women had to continuously fight for the right to vote for a full fifty years after the ratification of the 15th Amendment which had been designed to address a similar issue of the denial of voting rights, “on account of race, color, and previous servitude.” The word “gender” was conspicuous in its absence in that amendment, but prior to 1919, withholding the right to vote based on gender was still deemed to be perfectly acceptable under the original articles of the Constitution. With the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, along with the right to then vote, working women had been hoping that better employment opportunities would follow suit. While the women of America had finally gained the right to cast ballots and hold political office by August of 1920, their rights to seek equal employment opportunities remained solely controlled by the bastions of the male dominated industrial and political complexes.

World War I had seen a brief opening of the door to non-traditional female employment. With so many young men fighting in Europe, many positions in the industries supplying military hardware and goods were filled by women in order to keep the supply lines filled. Bridgeport’s Remington Arms was the largest single producer of metallic cartridges for the allied forces, as well as a major supplier of rifles used by the United States, Britain, and France. To meet the demand, the company employed hundreds of women between 1915 and 1918. But other than the war years, the best opportunities for female employment during the first quarter of the 20th century remained in more traditional fields such as nursing, elementary education, switchboard operators, domestic help, department store clerks, secretarial jobs, and waitressing – none of which usually paid enough to provide a woman with financial independence.

Positions that are routinely filled by women today were all but impossible to attain prior to 1940. Accounting, banking, advertising, high paying sales positions, and anything that even approached managerial levels were simply off-limits. Manufacturing jobs outside of the apparel industry were almost totally dominated by men. Almost every corporate office in America was staffed with male clerks and bookkeepers. Women office workers were relegated to being low paid secretaries and stenographers.

Tradition called for young women to be raised to become wives and mothers. Courses in high school were geared towards honing young women’s skills at sewing, cooking, and “keeping a nice home“. It was only the boys who were offered training in carpentry, metal working, and mechanics. Roles were defined by gender, not ability, and certainly not by ambition or individual preference.

In 1940, Easton’s demographics were rather typical of the other surrounding rural communities that sat a few miles inland from the coast. The total population of the town stood at 1,262. The 1940 United States Census gives us the most accurate assessment of employment opportunities for area women that we will find. While again typical of that era, the facts are almost shocking by today’s standards. Only 7.3% of Easton’s total population was comprised of female workers. A total of 93 Easton women were gainfully employed outside of the home that year. By far the largest percentage of those were employed as household servants, maids, and cooks; for a total of 34; fully a third of the entire female workforce. Another 6 were waitresses, and 4 more were clerks working in Bridgeport factories. It is likely that none of those positions paid enough to sustain a woman on her own. There were 9 secretaries, 5 teachers, 4 bookkeepers, 4 stenographers, and 2 nurses – 24 career jobs that might possibly supply a woman with enough money on an annual basis to survive. An experienced teacher in the Easton school system that year would have been paid a total of $1,700 – barely enough to pay the rent and purchase a few groceries each month. A closer look at that year’s census reveals that over 60% of Easton’s female workforce was single and either lived at home with their parents or resided with their employers.

For better or for worse, the coming of Second World War would soon change all that. Temporarily, at least.

Much of western Europe had been gearing up for possible military conflicts with Germany long before Hitler’s forces invaded Poland in September of 1939. Britain had started building new warships in early 1938. In the United States, there was widespread opposition to American intervention in European politics during the waning years of the Great Depression. American aviator and folk hero, Charles Lindbergh, became the spokesman for the 800,000 member America First Committee, an organization that was Nazi friendly and decidedly anti-Semitic in its makeup. They held rallies and lobbied hard to keep the United States out of the conflict. While the average American had no particular desire to go war, the Roosevelt administration soon began ramping up its own military production in anticipation of the inevitable.

By 1940, Bridgeport was already a major industrial hub with over 500 factories in operation while still expanding. Meeting the increasing demand for workers was difficult enough that year, but when President Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act in September of 1940 – the first peacetime act in American history for the conscription of young men – all bets were off when it came to keeping those factories humming without hiring women workers. Wartime production was already in full swing, despite America’s entrance into the fray still being over a year away. By early 1941, the United States was supplying military hardware to some European nations through its “Lend-Lease” program, all while officially remaining neutral in terms of the ongoing war on the Continent. Women workers were now considered an essential component of industry.

1943. Women assembling a Navy Corsair F4U fighter at the Vought-Sikorsky plant in Stratford
1943. Women assembly workers sharing lunch at Vought-Sikorsky in Stratford

The young women of Easton and surrounding towns were now being recruited to fill positions formerly reserved for their male counterparts. The Rosie the Riveter character created by the Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb song of 1942, soon became a national icon and was a large part of the “We Can Do It” campaign established by the War Production Co-ordinating Committee in 1943. Images abounded in Life Magazine of women assembly workers at Stratford’s Vought-Sikorsky plant, the main production facility for the famous Corsair F4U Navy fighter aircraft. A United States Labor Department publication from 1947, indicates that the Bridgeport area’s work force increased a whopping 85% between 1940 and 1943, and that fully one-third of that force was made up of women workers!

As the war continued, the need to transport workers from rural towns such as Easton grew more important. Gasoline and tire rationing severely limited the ability of workers to commute by automobile. Regular bus routes were expanded, and during the height of WWII, Easton workers could catch a bus anywhere along the route between Greiser’s store at the corner of Westport and Center Roads, down Sport Hill Road and into Stratfield where connections could be made with other busses that ran to Bullard’s in the west end, Warner Brother’s in the south end, and General Electric in the east end.  

212 names on Easton’s WWII & Korea Honor Roll – 6 were women.

The honor roll in front of the Easton Town Hall pays tribute to the 212 townspeople who were active in the military during the Second World War and Korea. All but six of those names are men, but there were many women of Easton who contributed in multiple ways during the war years, including some who volunteered to support our fighting men in the ancillary positions provided by the recently formed women’s branches of the military.

Dorothy Mae Gustafson lived on Westport Road prior to the beginning of the war, and had been employed as a domestic in the Aspetuck Farms enclave that Gustav Pfeiffer had created in the late 1930’s. By 1942, she was employed in a Bridgeport machine shop, and in September of 1943, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps. She was one of those six Easton women to serve their country in that capacity during WWII and the Korean War.

Most longtime Easton residents are aware that VFW Post 160 is named after Charles Logan Ruman. Lt. Ruman was lost on October 9, 1943 when his B-17, The Dallas Rebel, was shot down by enemy aircraft while returning from a bombing raid on Anklam, Germany. Surrounded by enemy aircraft, the plane’s rudder was destroyed as it lost altitude and ditched in the North Sea, fifty miles off of the Danish coast, killing all ten aboard. Lt. Ruman was the Dallas Rebel’s navigator. What most folks don’t necessarily know is that Charles Ruman’s younger sister, Elizabeth Ann, enlisted in the Navy Waves the same year as her brother was killed in action. Along with her younger brother, William, also in the Navy, three of Aurel and Edith Ruman’s children served their country during WWII.

The Dallas Rebel – Lost on October 9, 1943. Lt Charles L, Ruman of Easton perished along with 9 other brave airmen when this B-17 was shot down.

Elizabeth Ann Ruman served as a Wave in the United States Navy during WWII

Edith Marsh was 45 years old when the war broke out. A life-long community volunteer and one of the first women in Easton to have been elected to serve on the school board in the 1920’s, she joined the Civilian Defense Force almost as soon as it was created in May of 1941. “Emergency Food” was the designation typed on the back of her now dog-eared identification card. A fingerprint and a photograph confirmed her identity. Along with hundreds of other area women, she promoted the planting of those now famous Victory Gardens and coordinated efforts to stockpile provisions should the need arise to shelter in place during an enemy attack.

Author and activist Helen Keller continued her efforts on behalf of the blind, only during the time of war, she wasn’t simply asking how others could help the sightless, but rather how the blind could somehow contribute to the war effort.

The always sarcastic Edna Ferber involved herself in various campaigns throughout the conflict. After turning down a request from the Easton chapter of the American Red Cross volunteers to assist in wrapping bandages, responding in a artfully worded letter that she thought her talents could be better put to use in other supportive endeavors, she joined a host of other well-known Connecticut residents along with Mayor Jasper McLevy of Bridgeport at a Black Market Rally in that city in August of 1943. Rationing of many products during World War II, such as food items, gasoline, and coffee, had created a surge of black- market sales: rationed goods that were sold illegally, and often at inflated prices.  In August 1943, a rally in Marina Park was held to protest the black market.  

Shown in attendance in the rally are from left to right, the following:  (front row) Franz Rupp, pianist; Marian Anderson, opera  singer; Bud Hollick, comedian; Carl Frank, radio announcer and actor; (back row) Franklin P. Adams; columnist and quiz expert; Mayor Jasper McLevy; Edna Ferber, novelist; and Clifton Fadiman, book reviewer for the New Yorker

Women appeared to make great strides in the wartime economy. Their remarkably rapid transformation into skilled workers capable of welding steel and riveting the skins on the wings and fuselages of the world’s fastest aircraft should have been all the proof that the male dominated industrial machine needed that women were every bit as able as their male counterparts to perform in the workplace. But it would appear that was never destined to happen. A 1943 Monsanto advertisement would portend the predetermined fate of America’s female workforce. Showing total ambivalence towards the importance of women in the workplace, the marketing team at Monsanto actually wrote, approved, and published the following in one of their ads: “But there will come a day (after a certain boy with MacArthur comes flying triumphantly home to a big church wedding) when a lot of the good new things of peacetime will become important to Rosie the Housewife…or, dozens of other things that can mean new comforts and conveniences for Rosie and her sisters; new jobs and greater opportunities for those fighting menfolk that they’re backing now with their love, their work, their War Bond buying.”  If there was any doubt in the minds of working women that their new-found careers were in jeopardy come the end of the war, callous words such as those should have put an end to it.

This remarkably insensitive 1943 Monsanto advertisement would have never passed muster in today’s world

The progress women had achieved during the war came to a screeching halt by the end of 1945. The great factories that had tirelessly churned out the machinery of war transitioned over to peacetime production, and in the process, the young men returning from Europe and Asia replaced the women who had so ably provided them with the tools that gave them their victory.

If there was one silver lining to this, it was that those great ladies who gave back so much of what they had gained during the war, went on to raise a new generation of daughters. Young women whose mothers encouraged them to attend university and strive for excellence in everything they would do. Young women who were encouraged to compete and encouraged to excel. Young women who were encouraged to persevere. It would take women a few more decades to achieve anywhere near the gender equality that was rightfully theirs, and while there is still a way to go in successfully achieving that quest, their mothers and grandmothers can finally enjoy some of the fruits of their labor. Well done, ladies!

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