February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
For millions of women, consciousness raising didn’t start in the 1960s. It started when they helped win World War II.
I applied for a job at Rohr Aircraft, and they sent me to a six-week training school. You learned how to use an electric drill, how to do precision drilling, how to rivet. I hadn’t seen anything like a rivet gun or an electric drill motor before except in Buck Rogers funny books. That’s the way they looked to me. But I was an eager learner, and I soon became an outstanding riveter.
At Rohr I worked riveting the boom doors on P-38s. They were big, long, huge doors that had three or four thicknesses of skins, and you had to rivet those skins together. Everything had to be precise. It all had to pass inspection. Each rivet had to be countersunk by hand, so you had to be very good.
I found the work very challenging but I hated the dress. We had to wear ugly-looking hairnets that made the girls look awful. The female guards were very strict about them too. Maybe you’d try to leave your bangs sticking out, but they’d come and make you stick them back in. You looked just like a skinhead, very unfeminine. Then you had to wear pants—we called them slacks in those days—and you never wore them prior to the war. Finally, all the women had to wear those ugly scarves. They issued them so they were all the same. You couldn’t wear a colorful scarf or bandanna.
I worked at Rohr for almost a year, then, when I got married and pregnant, I went back to Grand Junction for a while.
When I came back, I went to work for the San Diego Transit driving buses and streetcars. I just saw a sign on a bus downtown one day that said, “I need you,” and I went and applied. I hadn’t even been driving very long. I only learned to drive a car after I got to San Diego, and I didn’t know anything about driving a big vehicle like that. But the war really created opportunities for women. It was the first time we got a chance to show that we could do a lot of things that only men had done before.
The transit company had a three-month school. They had classroom lessons and training in the field. You had to learn the automotive aspects of the bus so that if it broke down you could call in to tell the mechanic what was wrong so he could come and fix it. You also had to learn all the bus routes.
I drove buses and streetcars for about two and a half years. In fact I was driving a bus the day the war ended. I let everybody ride my bus free that day.
I remember my first husband saying to me, “You’ve lived through a depression and you weren’t even aware that it was here.” It was true. I knew that people were without work and that lots of people were having a hard time, but it never seemed to affect us or our friends. They were all the same ilk—all college people and all golfing and bridge-playing companions. I suppose you’d call it a life of ease. We always kept a live-in maid, and we never had to go without anything. Before the war my life was bridge and golf and clubs and children. One group I belonged to was a children’s improvement group. I sat one night at the meeting and looked around at the group of women—there must have been thirty of us sitting there—and each one of us had maids, and our children were all at home with the maids. We were discussing how to improve our children, and they would have been far better off if we’d been home taking care of them.
When the war broke out, my husband’s rubber-matting business in Ohio had to close due to the war restrictions on rubber. We also lost our live-in maid, and I could see there was no way I could possibly live the way I was accustomed to doing. So I took my children home to my parents in Seattle.
The Seattle papers were full of ads for women workers needed to help the war effort. “Do your part, free a man for service.” Being a D.A.R., I really wanted to help the war effort. I could have worked for the Red Cross and rolled bandages, but I wanted to do something that I thought was really vital. Building bombers was, so I answered an ad for Boeing.
My mother was horrified. She said no one in our family had ever worked in a factory. “You don’t know what kind of people you’re going to be associated with.” My father was horrified too, no matter how I tried to impress on him that this was a war effort on my part. He said, “You’ll never get along with the people you’ll meet there.” My husband thought it was utterly ridiculous. I had never worked. I didn’t know how to handle money, as he put it. I was nineteen when I was married. My husband was ten years older, and he always made me feel like a child, so he didn’t think I would last very long at the job, but he was wrong.
They started me as a clerk in this huge toolroom. I had never handled a tool in my life outside of a hammer. Some man came in and asked for a bastard file. I said to him, “If you don’t control your language, you won’t get any service here.” I went to my supervisor and said, “You’ll have to correct this man. I won’t tolerate that kind of language.” He laughed and laughed and said, “Don’t you know what a bastard file is? It’s the name of a very coarse file.” He went over and took one out and showed me.
So I said to him, “If I’m going to be part of this organization, I must have some books, something that shows me how I can learn to do what I’m supposed to do.” This was an unheard-of request. It went through channels, and they finally brought me some large, classified material that showed all the tools and machinery needed to build the B-17s. So gradually I educated myself about the various tools and their uses, and I was allowed to go out and roam around the machine area and become acquainted with what they were doing. The results showed on my paycheck. Eventually I became chief clerk of the toolroom. I think I was the first woman chief clerk they had.
The first yeari I worked seven days a week. We didn’t have any time off. They did allow us Christmas off, but Thanksgiving we had to work. That was a hard thing to do. The children didn’t understand. My mother and father didn’t understand, but I worked. I think that put a little iron in my spine too. I did something that was against my grain, but I did it, and I’m glad.
Since I was the chief clerk, they gave me the privilege of coming to work a half-hour early in the morning and staying over thirty to forty minutes at night. Because I was working late one night I had a chance to see President Roosevelt. They said he was coming in on the swing shift, after four o’clock, so I waited to see him. They cleared out all the aisles of the main plant, and he went through in a big, open limousine. He smiled and he had his long cigarette holder, and he was very, very pleasant. “Hello there, how are you? Keep up the war effort. Oh, you women are doing a wonderful job.” We were all thrilled to think the President could take time out of the war effort to visit us factory workers. It gave us a lift, and I think we worked harder.
Boeing was a real education for me. It taught me a different way of life. I had never been around uneducated people before, people that worked with their hands. I was prudish and had never been with people that used coarse language. Since I hadn’t worked before, I didn’t know there was such a thing as the typical male ego. My contact with my first supervisor was one of animosity, in which he stated, “The happiest day of my life will be when I say goodbye to each one of you women as I usher you out the front door.” I didn’t understand that kind of resentment, but it was prevalent throughout the plant. Many of the men felt that no woman could come in and run a lathe, but they did. I learned that just because you’re a woman and have never worked is no reason you can’t learn. The job really broadened me. I had led a very sheltered life. I had had no contact with Negroes except as maids or gardeners. My mother was a Virginian, and we were brought up to think that colored people were not on the same economic or social level. I learned differently at Boeing. I learned that because a girl is a Negro she’s not necessarily a maid, and because a man is a Negro doesn’t mean that all he can do is dig. In fact, I found that some of the black people I got to know there were very superior—and certainly equal to me—equal to anyone I ever knew.
Before I worked at Boeing I also had had no exposure to unions. After I was there awhile, I joined the machinists union. We had a contract dispute, and we had a one-day walkout to show Boeing our strength. We went on this march through the financial district in downtown Seattle.
My mother happened to be down there seeing the president of the Seattle First National Bank at the time. Seeing this long stream of Boeing people, he interrupted her and said, “Mrs. Ely, they seem to be having a labor walkout. Let’s go out and see what’s going on.” So my mother and a number of the people from the bank walked outside to see what was happening. And we came down the middle of the street—I think there were probably five thousand of us. I saw my mother. I could recognize her—she was tall and stately—and I waved and said, “Hello, Mother.” That night when I got home, I thought she was never going to honor my name again. She said, “To think my daughter was marching in that labor demonstration. How could you do that to the family?” But I could see that it was a new, new world.
My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, “You will never want to go back to being a housewife.” At that time I didn’t think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did.
I had always been in a shell; I’d always been protected. But at Boeing I found a freedom and an independence I had never known. After the war I could never go back to playing bridge again, being a clubwoman and listening to a lot of inanities when I knew there were things you could use your mind for. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up.
When I was nineteen I fell in love with a boy from Oklahoma. George was also from a depressed area and joined the Navy to get ahead. He was stationed in California, and I decided to come and join him. I felt there would be more opportunity in California, and I was determined that I was going to have a different life.
I had twenty-five dollars when I left Oklahoma. I answered an ad in the paper looking for riders to California and paid twelve dollars for the trip. I arrived here with twelve dollars to my name and lived with friends until I could get work.
I got a job as a pastry cook at a restaurant in Whittier, a very exclusive place. I was making fifteen dollars (and board) a week and was very proud of myself. George and I were planning to marry. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked, and his ship was sent out to fight in the Pacific.
After he left I knew I had to make it on my own. I saw an ad in the paper announcing the opening of a school for vocational training in aircraft. I was looking for the opportunity to learn something else, and I wanted to earn more money. I worked during the day cooking and went to school at night studying bench mechanics and riveting, how to read blueprints and use different aircraft tools.
After about three months the instructor said, “There’s no use in you spending any more time here. You can go out and get a job.” He gave me my graduation slip, and I went down to San Diego to look around, because George’s mother lived there. I went to Convair, which was Consolidated Aircraft then, and they hired me.
I was one of the first women hired at Convair and I was determined that I wasn’t going to lose the job and be sent back to working as a pastry cook. Convair had a motto on their plant which said that anything short of right is wrong, and that stuck with me. I went to work in the riveting group in metal-bench assembly. The mechanics would bring us the job they had put together, and we would take the blueprints and rivet what they brought us.
They would always put the new people with another person, a “leadman.” The man I went to work for was really great. He saw my determination and he would give me hard jobs to do. The other girls would say, “Joplin, don’t give her that, I’ll do it.” But he would say, “I’m going to break her in right, I’m going to do it the hard way.” He told me later that he had made a mistake and been too easy with the other girls.
I tackled everything. I had a daring mother who was afraid of nothing: horses, farm implements, anything, so maybe I inherited a little bit ofthat from her. I remember my brother, who was in the Air Corps at the time, and his friends laughed at me one day thinking I couldn’t learn this mechanical stuff. I can still see them, but it only made me more determined. I think it probably hurt their pride a little bit that I was capable of doing this.
Pretty soon I was promoted to bench-mechanic work, which was detailed hand riveting. Then I was given a bench with nothing to do but repair what other people had ruined. I visited a man recently who’s seventy-four years old, and he said to my daughter, “All we had to do was foul up a job and take it to her and she’d fix it.”
I loved working at Convair. I loved the challenge of getting dirty and getting into the work. I did one special riveting job, hand riveting that could not be done by machine. I worked on that job for three months, ten hours a day, six days a week, and slapped three-eighth- or three-quarter-inch rivets by hand that no one else would do. I didn’t have that kind of confidence as a kid growing up, because I didn’t have that opportunity. Convair was the first time in my life that I had the chance to prove that I could do something, and I did. They finally made me a group leader, although they didn’t pay me the wage that went with the job, because I was a woman.
Our department was a majority of women. Many of the women had no training at all, particularly the older women. We had women in our department who were ex-schoolteachers, -artists, -housewives, so when we could give them a job from the production line, the job would have to be set up for them. I’d sit them down and show them how to use the drill press, the size drill to use, the size of screws, the kind of rivets, whether it was an Army rivet or a Navy rivet—a Navy rivet was an icebox rivet, the Army rivet was not—and so on. Then I would go back and check to see if the riveting was okay, and if there were any bad rivets, they had to take them out. Most of the time I had to take them out myself. As a group leader that’s what I did, and I did it at the same time I was doing my job as a bench mechanic. There were four male group leaders and myself. Theoretically we should have been classified as group leaders and paid for that type of work, but we were not. I felt that was discrimination and that we were being used by the company and fought against it.
Shortly after I went to work at Convair I was chosen by the people in our work group to sit on the wagereview board. The company had automatic wage reviews, and when I first started, those were the only raises that we received. The women were lucky, though, if we got a five-cent-an-hour increase on a review. Some of the women got three cents, some of the women even got two cents, and some of the women were passed over. To us it seemed that the men’s pay automatically went up, and ours didn’t. I was fortunate enough to get raises later, even a ten-cent raise, and I actually had an assistant foreman come up to me and say, “Don’t say anything to the other girls about getting a raise.” I told him, “I don’t discuss my personal wages, but how about the other women who are deserving too?” So on the wage board I fought for the other women as much as I fought for myself. The highest-paid women at that time were making around $.80 an hour, but the men were probably making $1.15 to $1.50 an hour for identically the same work. In fact, there was a lot of feeling that the women were producing more work than the men on final assembly and on the bench because of their agility with their hands.
Some of the things we did change. For example, they were forced to classify you because of your work. And somewhere in the back of their minds they had the idea that they were not going to make a woman anything but a B-mechanic. As a B-mechanic you could only go to $1.00 an hour, and they were determined that no woman would ever become an A-mechanic or an A-riveter. But we really fought that and we proved to them by bringing them on the job that we were doing A-mechanic work and producing more than the men. So I got my A-mechanic classification and a raise to $1.15 an hour.
I also sat on the safety board the whole time I was at Convair, for the safety requirements they demanded of women were more unreasonable than what they demanded of men. In the beginning we had caps and uniforms we were supposed to wear, but the women rebelled at that. We felt that we could be safe and wear the clothes we wanted. Eventually the company did become a little more relaxed about dress, so we won some victories there too.
There was also a big difference between my salary and those in defense work. I was making something like twenty-two to twenty-four dollars a week in the drugstore. You could earn a much greater amount of money for your labor in defense plants. Also it interested me. I had a certain curiosity about meeting that kind of challenge, and here was an opportunity to do that, for there were more openings for women.
So I went to two or three plants and took their test. And they all told me I had absolutely no mechanical ability. I said, “I don’t believe that.” So I went to another plant, A. D. E. L. I was interviewed and got the job. This particular plant made the hydraulic valve system for the B-17. And where did they put women? In the burr room. You sat at a workbench, which was essentially like a picnic table with a bunch of other women, and you worked grinding and sanding machine parts to make them smooth. That’s what you did all day long. It was very mechanical and it was very boring. There were about thirty women in the burr room, and it was like being in a beauty shop every day. I couldn’t stand the inane talk. So when they asked me if I would like to work someplace else in the shop, I said I very much would.
They started training me. I went to a blueprint class and learned how to use a micrometer and how to draw tools out of the tool crib and everything else. Then one day they said, “Okay, how would you like to go into the machine shop?”
I said, “Terrific.”
And they said, “Now, Adele, it’s going to be a real challenge because you’ll be the only woman in the machine shop.” I thought to myself, well, that’s going to be fun, all those guys and Adele in the machine shop. So the foreman took me over there. It was a big room, with a high ceiling and fluorescent lights, and it was very noisy. I walked in there, in my overalls, and suddenly all the machines stopped and every guy in the shop just turned around and looked at me. It took, I think, two weeks before anyone even talked to me. The discrimination was indescribable. They wanted to kill me.
My attitude was, “Okay, you bastards. I’m going to prove to you I can do anything you can do, and maybe better than some of you.” And that’s exactly the way it turned out. I used to do the rework on the pieces that the guy on the shift before me had screwed up. I finally got assigned to nothing but rework.
Later they taught me to run an automatic screwing machine. It’s a big mother, and it took a lot of strength just to throw that thing into gear. They probably thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But I was determined to succeed. As a matter of fact I developed the most fantastic biceps from throwing that machine into gear. Even today I still have a little of that muscle left.
Anyway, eventually some of the men became very friendly, particularly the older ones, the ones in their late forties or fifties. They were journeymen tool and die makers and were so skilled that they could work anywhere at very high salaries. They were sort of fatherly, protective. They weren’t threatened by me. The younger men, I think, were.
Our plant was an open shop, and the International Association of Machinists was trying to unionize the workers. I joined and worked to try to get the union in the plant. I proselytized for the union during lunch hour and I had a big altercation with the management over that. The employers and my leadman and foreman called me into the office and said, “We have a right to fire you.”
I said, “On what basis? I work as well or better than anybody else in the shop except the journeymen.”
They said, “No, not because ofthat, because you’re talking for the union on company property. You’re not allowed to do that.”
I said, “Well, that’s just too bad, because I can’t get off the grounds here. You won’t allow us to leave the grounds during lunch hour. And you don’t pay me for my lunch hour, so that time doesn’t belong to you, so you can’t tell me what to do.” And they backed down.
I had one experience at the plant that really made me work for the union. One day while I was burring, I had an accident and ripped some cartilage out of my hand. It wasn’t serious, but it looked kind of messy.
They had to take me over to the industrial hospital to get my hand sutured. I came back and couldn’t work for a day or two because my hand was all bandaged. It wasn’t serious, but it was awkward. When I got my paycheck, I saw that they had docked me for time that I was in the industrial hospital. When I saw that I was really mad.
It’s ironic that when the union finally got into the plant, they had me transferred out. They were anxious to get rid of me because, after we got them in, I went to a few meetings and complained about it being a Jim Crow union. So they arranged for me to have a higher rating instead of a worker’s rating. This allowed me to make twenty-five cents an hour more, and I got transferred to another plant. By this time I was married. When I became pregnant I worked for about three months more, then I quit.
For me defense work was the beginning of my emancipation as a woman. For the first time in my life I found out that I could do something with my hands besides bake a pie.
The women worked in pairs. I was the riveter and this big, strong white girl from a cotton farm in Arkansas worked as the bucker. The riveter used a gun to shoot rivets through the metal and fasten it together. The bucker used a bucking bar on the other side of the metal to smooth out the rivets. Bucking was harder than shooting rivets; it required more muscle. Riveting required more skill.
I worked for a while as a riveter with this white girl when the boss came around one day and said, “We’ve decided to make some changes.” At this point he assigned her to do the riveting and me to do the bucking. I wanted to know why. He said, “Well, we just interchange once in a while.” But I was never given the riveting job back. This was the first encounter I had with segregation in California, and it didn’t sit too well with me. It brought back some of my experiences in Sapulpa—you’re a Negro, so you do the hard work. I wasn’t failing as a riveter—in fact, the other girl learned to rivet from me— but I felt they gave me the job of bucker because I was black.
So I applied to Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica and was hired as a riveter there. On that job I did not encounter the same prejudice.
I worked in aircraft for a few years, then in ’43 I saw an ad in the paper for women trainees to learn arc welding. The salary sounded good, from $1.00 to $1.25 an hour. I wanted to learn that skill and I wanted to make more money, so I answered the ad and they sent me to a short course at welding school. After I passed the trainee course, they employed me at the shipyards. That was a little different than working in aircraft because in the shipyard you found mostly men. There I ran into another kind of discrimination; because I was a woman I was paid less than a man for doing the same job.
I was an arc welder, I’d passed both the Army and Navy tests, and I knew I could do the job, but I found from talking with some of the men that they made more money. You’d ask about this, but they’d say, “Well, you don’t have the experience,” or, “The men have to lift some heavy pieces of steel and you don’t have to,” but I knew that I had to help lift steel too.
They started everyone off at $1.20 an hour. There were higher-paying jobs, though, like chippers and crane operators that were for men only. Once, the foreman told me I had to go on the skids—the long docks alongside the hull. I said, “That sounds pretty dangerous. Will I make more than $1.20 an hour?” And he said, “No, $1.20 is the top pay you’ll get.” But the men got more.
It was interesting that although they didn’t pay women as much as men, the men treated you differently if you wore slacks. I noticed, for example, that when you’d get on the bus or the streetcar, you stood all the way, more than the lady who would get on with a dress. I never could understand why men wouldn’t give women in slacks a seat. And at the shipyards the language wasn’t the best. Nobody respected you enough to clean up the way they spoke. It didn’t seem to bother the men that you were a woman. During the war years men began to say, you have a man’s job and you’re getting paid almost the same, so we don’t have to give you a seat anymore or show the common courtesies that men show women. All those niceties were lost.
I enjoyed working at the shipyard—it was a unique job for a woman—and I liked the challenge. But it was a dangerous job. The safety measures were very poor. Many people were injured by falling steel. Finally I was assigned to a very hazardous area and I asked to be transferred into a safer area. I was not granted that. They said you have to work where they assign you at all times. I thought it was getting too dangerous, so I quit.
The war years had a tremendous impact on women. I know for myself it was the first time I had a chance to get out of the kitchen and work in industry and make a few bucks. This was something I had never dreamed would happen. In Sapulpa all that women had to look forward to was keeping house and raising families. The war years offered new possibilities. You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job. This was the beginning of women’s feeling that they could do something more. We were trained to do this kind of work because of the war, but there was no question that this was just an interim period. We were all told that when the war was over, we would not be needed anymore.
Then I heard of an opening at American Steel for a crane operator, on a small ten-ton crane. I applied for it and got it. Then I had to learn it. The men said, “You won’t learn it. Women can’t do that job.” But they were wrong. I think I was the fourth woman hired in the mill. It wasn’t an important or dangerous job, just moving gun mounts and gun barrels around and cleaning up the floor in what they called the Navy building. The important work was inside the foundry, where they poured the steel. It was all men in the foundry. You had to have seniority to run one of those fifty-ton cranes because there was so much responsibility involved.
One day there was a terrible accident at the plant. One of the crane operators lost a load of steel, poured it all over. It just streamed everywhere, put a lot of lives in danger. After the accident they took him to the doctor and he was examined carefully. They found that he was losing his eyesight, that he couldn’t see that far away in the brightness to pour the steel. They had to take him off the crane and needed an immediate replacement. They looked around and there wasn’t anyone but women. The men they still had were on jobs where they couldn’t be replaced.
By this time I had moved up to operating a fifty-ton crane and I had learned the language of the foundry, the sign language with which you communicate to your rigger or chainman. So they offered the job to me, and I took it. Pouring steel was the hardest job in the mill, and the men said, “It’s too big a responsibility for a woman. She’ll never last.” But I did.
The hardest part for me was sanding the rails. The rails are what the wheels of the crane run on. They’re way up in the air over the concrete floor and they have to be sanded every eight-hour shift, because if your rails get too slick, your hook will slide. That was the first time I had a crane with railings before, and when I found out that the operators had to sand them, I was almost scared to death. I thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t look down at that concrete and put this little bucket of sand up and down. I just can’t do it.” And one of the men said, “Well, that’ll get her. She’ll never sand them tracks.” That’s what made me sand them. After that I had to. I had to show them I could do it.
It took a while to be accepted. We had a big coke stove and we’d gather around it to get warm. On occasion, when I had time to come down and take my breaks, the men would stand so close together around the stove that there wasn’t room for me. So I just leaned up against the wall. The wall was warmer than where they were standing anyway because it had absorbed the heat from all the hours the fire had been going. So I would lean up against the wall and laugh at their jokes. And I would offer them a doughnut if I had one and so forth. So actually I made the overtures. And after a while they began to accept me.
During the war the morale inside the plants was extremely high. Not just myself, but everybody, gave everything they had. They wanted to do it. Today you don’t sit around and talk about patriotism while you’re drinking a beer, but you did back then. I mean you had a neighbor next door—maybe he lived states and states away—and if you were like me, often you couldn’t understand what he said, but you had this great thing in common. You were all pulling together for one great war effort.
I was never absent, and I wasn’t unique in that. There was very little absenteeism where I worked. If I woke up in the morning and I didn’t feel too good and I really didn’t want to work, I could make myself go by thinking, “What about those boys who are getting up at five o’clock, maybe haven’t even been to bed? Maybe they’re leaning their chin on a bayonet just to stay awake on watch. I don’t even know their names. They don’t even have faces to me, but they’re out there somewhere overseas. And I’m saying that I don’t feel like going to work today because I’ve got a headache?” That would get me out of bed and into work. And by the time I’d stayed there a couple of hours, it was okay. I was going to make it So I never stayed at home.
There was only one really difficult problem with working. That was leaving my two-and-one-half-year-old daughter. When a mother goes away from home and starts to work for her first time, there is always a feeling of guilt. Any mother that has ever done this has had this feeling. I couldn’t cope with it at first.
I relate so much with women who are trying to get into nontraditional jobs today, because during the war we had those jobs out of necessity, and then after the war they were no longer there. Women have actually had nontraditional jobs since the first wagon train went across the country. When they arrived at the place where they wanted to settle, they helped cut the logs, they helped put them together, they helped put the mud between the log cabins, and they made a home and had their babies inside. And everytime a war comes along, women take up nontraditional work again. During the Civil War they worked in factories, they helped make musket balls, they made clothing for the troops, and they kept the home fires burning the way they always have. World War I came along and they did the same thing. After the war was over, they went back home. World War II, it was exactly the same thing, but the women were different in World War II: they didn’t want to go back home, and many of them haven’t. And if they did go back home, they never forgot, and they told their daughters, “You don’t have to be just a homemaker. You can be anything you want to be.” And so we’ve got this new generation of women.