Rosie may have riveted fighter planes, but Wendy the Welder built the battleships, one arc at a time. In my neck of the Pacific Northwest woods, the Kaiser shipyards in Vancouver, Washington and Portland , Oregon produced 422 Liberty ships to aid in the war effort. And 25% of the shipyard workers were women, recruited from all around the country by Kaiser Shipyards.
Henry Kaiser was not new to grand projects. He’d overseen the building of the Grand Coulee, Boulder and Bonneville dams. America was short on war materiel and Kaiser won contracts to build shipyards. He constructed seven shipyards along the west coast: four in the San Francisco Bay area and three along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers. Ships were needed, and fast. Rivets weren’t going to cut it. While riveted ships were certainly seaworthy, they took a long time to construct and the rivets added tons of weight to the ship. Kaiser and Co. had the ingenious idea to create ships in assembly-line fashion, welding huge sections of deck and hull in separate shops, then transporting each piece to the ways (slipways sloped to the water) to be welded together again. The Kaiser yards prided themselves on building Liberty Ships in an average of two weeks.
Historically, the shipyard was the domain of men, a rough place with men doing rough jobs. But as more and more men enlisted or were drafted into the services, Kaiser (and all factories that contracted to build war materiel) struggled to find workers. The magnitude of this need becomes obvious when looking at the records: 160,000 workers poured into the Portland area over the course of the war to work at the shipyards. With the men off to war, Kaiser and the War Manpower Commission made a concerted effort to recruit women. Recruiters went door to door in Portland and sped by train across the country, exhorting women to join the war effort. Newspapers and radio shows celebrated women throwing off their aprons and putting on welding masks and coveralls.
Patriotism was the lure, yet in reality money and opportunity often trumped. American families were still struggling to survive the Depression. People did whatever was necessary to survive and feed themselves. And nothing paid better than the shipyards.
Welding classes were set up at local high schools, such as Benson High, and recruits graduated as welders in as little as four weeks, after learning how to weld vertical, overhead, angled and horizontal seams. The first women to enter the classes were assigned as assistants at the yard, finding themselves chipping bad seams, cleaning up the debris, or lugging huge cans of paint to the ways.
They faced resistance from the unions, from the men they worked with, from husbands who disapproved of their wives working in the yards, and scathing “humor” from the comics penned in the Bo’s’n’s Whistle, the yard’s newspaper. Their clothes – heavy denim, leather coverettes and gloves, and steel-toed workboots – were ill-fitting and purchased from the men’s department. But as the war ground on, the Wendy’s proved they were capable and competent, and gained the esteem of co-workers and civilians alike.
At least the white women did. Throughout the war, discrimination was the operative word for black workers, whether male or female, who found themselves relegated to the lowest positions, no matter their skills upon hire.
The thousands of workers who poured in the Portland area created a housing crisis. Portland authorities eased building codes and exhorted home owners with large homes to share, and many houses were split up into smaller apartments. In 1943, Kaiser built Vanport with monies from his shipbuilding grant – a community close to the yards (and too close to the Columbia, it would turn out, as a flood in 1948 destroyed the whole community).
With the workers came their children and women often worked a double day with little time to rest. Childcare was divided between relatives, friends, or other tenants. Kaiser grew concerned at the amount of time women took off from work, and also with the high level of women who quit. Kaiser management eventually created the Kaiser Child Care Center, again near the yards, which became a national model.
It was a time when many women first gained a level of independence, and a trade they thought they could rely on in the future. Yet, as the war wound down, the shipyards began lay-offs. The first to go were women. Women’s opportunities contracted and the overwhelming attitude was that their place was, again, the home.
In a 1945 article entitled “The Kitchen – Women’s Big Post-War Goal”, the Bo’s’n’s Whistle put it bluntly (purportedly echoing what the women themselves wanted):
“Brothers, the tin hat and welder’s torch will be yours! We, the women, will give them back to you with best regards…when the war is finally won, the thing we want to do is take off these unfeminine garments and button ourselves into something starched and pretty.”
There was, unfortunately, not much choice. And as occurred with all the women who served as the Rosies, and the Army Nurses, and in the Women’s Army Corps, their contributions to the war effort were quickly forgotten. Only in the last few decades have their stories been written, and even then, the books are few and far between.
As a historical fiction writer, I love to learn about all the amazing things women have done in history. And yet, my mission is to find gay women’s stories within these stories, and that proves quite difficult. Silence and passing, marrying and fitting in were the norm of the time. This is part of what I am exploring as I write my novel Under the Pale Moon.
And yet, I am also writing a romance and I can let the fiction and facts blur a bit. Let the girls who like girls adore them in the open – at least during this crazy wonderful life-changing time when, as Wendy’s, they pitched in to help win the war. And maybe another Wendy’s heart.
Move over, Rosie. Wendy’s got a torch and she knows how to use it.
I would love to hear if you or your mother or grandmother worked at a factory or in the armed services during the war. What’s their story? What’s yours?
For more information check out:
A Mouthful of Rivets: Women at Work in World War II by Nancy Baker Wise & Christy Wise
Shipyard Diary of a Woman Welder by Augusta Home Clawson
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