Many believe that women’s status in the work place improved dramatically during World War I. Due to war time propaganda and the impressive occupational gains made by women during World War lI, many have assumed that the same circumstances advanced employment opportunities for women during the previous world war in s lasting way. However, even though women were able to shift employment sectors, their status as workers in the post World War I decade showed little improvement from the pre-war years.
Throughout the years surrounding World War I, more women worked in manufacturing than in any other employment sector. Though the proportion of women in manufacturing declined over the period, they were able to enter jobs never before open to them. In fact, the government’s urgent call to Americans to release people for “more necessary employment” may have led to a sanctioned stigma on domestic and personal service as nonessential work. There had always been a higher esteem placed on factory work with its clearly defined hours than domestic work. But government action probably introduced women who lacked the initiative to try new kinds of work to the factories and white collar jobs which, as individuals they might well never have undertaken. Yet, they found themselves very capable of doing these jobs as they were often more interesting and at higher pay and improved working conditions than their domestic work.
Even middle class feminists of the era jumped on the bandwagon and articulated their perceptions of paying jobs as a form of emancipation from men. Particularly revered were the women in factories who had broken out of the constraints of domesticity into paying work as hard as any man’s. Work, according to these middle class reformers took away much of the stereotyping of “weak women.”
It was a way to show independence and strength. However, when a prominent feminist journalist and active advocate of women’s work, Rheta Childe Dorr, went to work in a factory, she found the workers had certainly not been liberated by their work.
Instead of independence, she had found meek girls docilely handing over their wages to their fathers. Most disturbing of all, factory girls, with their romantic visions and their hearts set on marriage, seemed anxious to get out of work as she herself, deserting a wealthy husband, had been desperate to get into it.
While for some it did provide independence, for others work only institutionalized their dependence on men. On the other hand, Dorr was also shocked by strikers’ riots and physical fighting among the working women. Perhaps she saw both resulting from the degradation of the worker, both male and female.
The number of women factory workers in Connecticut grew from 26,865 to 60,350 between 1880 and 1920, an increase of 124.6 percent. The increase of women in the work world was 200.5 percent for the same period, showing that though there was an expansion of the numbers of women in manufacturing, they by no means kept up with the growth of all women at work, or men in the manufacturing sector. The population grew 144 percent while the number of male workers increased by 130 percent.
Whereas in 1910 the largest number of women were employed in corset, cotton, and silk factories, by 1920 there were as many women doing semiskilled work in the machine shops. A great number of these jobs were in Connecticut’s munitions plants where women had been working for years, but had just begun to get public attention. Remington Arms and Munition and Remington Union Metallic Company of Bridgeport, the Winchester Repeating Arms Company and Merlin-Rockwell Company of New Haven, and Colt’s Patent Firearms Company of Hartford were the five main munitions factories in Connecticut. When the state began to tool up for the war effort between 1914 and 1915, as the Germans marched west through Belgium and France, a large number of other factories adapted their metal shops to the manufacture of shells, bombs, parts of ammunition, and rifles.
The number of women working in iron and steel more than doubled. A “Report of Wage Earning Women and Girls” published in 1918 described the semi-skilled jobs women were able to take.
The correct eye, swift and nimble fingers and adaptability of women as well as the fact that they worked for less wages caused them to be employed in great numbers. In much of the work, no special skill beyond manipulation was required, the skilled being placed in rooms where the more delicate mechanism was constructed and the unskilled filling the benches where hundreds of foreigners who had never been employed in any such labor were soon made passably efficient through instructions.
Due to the dearth of skilled women and the need to expand production quickly, the munitions industry replaced skilled with semi- and un-skilled workers with the introduction of new technology. Many women workers, previously working in stores or as domestics flocked to the metal trades. Their move was influenced by higher wages as well as the enthusiasm for the war effort in a desire to relieve or equip a man for service.
As more and more war contracts came in, the factories had to be flexible in their employment patterns to get the necessary number of workers. Women were allowed to form into teams; one woman working the first half of the week and another working the second. Arrangements were made for women to come into factories for piecework to fit the available hours of the workers. School teachers were known to put in hours in the late afternoon. In times of economic necessity workers had increased bargaining power, and they used it.
Some of the women worked because of patriotic duty, others for the economic necessity, and still others for extra spending money. But, unlike today with high unemployment, the employer had to cater to his workers’ needs to keep those he could get. As Corinne Barker writes,
Even in 1914-1915 several hundred young married women were working in munitions plants . . . In many instances the home was neglected. In order to allow these mothers to work, nurseries were provided in many of the factories where professional nurses were employed to care for the children. The mother brought the child or children to the nursery when she came to work. The child was immediately put into clean clothes furnished by the factory, cared for, and amused all day until the mother was ready to go home.
The women polished the small metal parts of the guns, drilled holes in the receiver, inspected the rough parts as well as the finished product. According to Barker, all factories employed women in shops (separated by sex), offices and as purchasing agents.
Even though a smaller proportion of workers were employed in manufacturing in 1920 than in 1910, the munitions factories and their workers in many ways controlled the total work picture. The munitions factories supported a large number of subsidiary rubber, electrical, leather, and metal manufacturers, giving rise to a more widespread prosperity in the state. Jewell Belting Company converted their machinery to make two million bayonet scabbards to equip soldiers for hand-to-hand combat in the war, one million gun slings, and thousands of belts for munitions plants. Their employees were about ninety percent men. In 1917 there were 225 workers. By 1919, Jewell employed 500 people. Hartford Rubber Works produced 55,000 gas masks to combat the use of this new, dangerous, but effective weapon, 5,000 pair of high rubber boots, and 5,000 tires for the war effort. And, in their advertising campaign for workers, they “secured many teachers, insurance girls, and bank girls.”
The women and men wage earners who were in such great demand in these expanding industries caused other employers to raise wages to levels commensurate with those of munitions factories to retain their workers. Domestics and those in personal service left their jobs with no one to fill them.