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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 158-161
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Pioneers of Production
Women Industrial Workers in World War II
Elizabeth Mandel and Beryl Sinclair
Our aim in choosing this topic was to understand the role of working women in World War II. Elizabeth had visited the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. the summer before this project began and brought home a "We Can Do It" poster of Rosie the Riveter. This poster became our inspiration. We wanted to know who Rosie was and how she came to be an American symbol. The slogan is one that we, as young American women, felt we could relate to in our own lives. We wanted to know its origin and were excited to investigate this important frontier in women's history.
We began our research in our school library, where we found several good secondary sources that gave us a broad understanding of how women contributed to the war effort by working in "male" industries. There is an abundance of information about "Rosie the Riveter" and her work in the California shipyards. We thought it would be more interesting, however, to extend our research to the role of women industrial workers here in our own state of Massachusetts. We therefore decided to choose two particular industries in Massachusetts that employed women during the war and hoped to find suitable primary source material.
While we looked for these two industries, we continued to investigate our topic by searching the online public library catalog. We found a wealth of material, and visited at least seven libraries to collect it all. This took a lot of time. Newspaper and magazine articles published between 1941 and 1948 proved to be useful because they provided both statistical information and insights into the cultural and social impact of these women workers. The periodicals also gave us a more direct view of World War II, in general, because they reported the events as they occurred. It was very tedious to search through the microfilm reels, but a lot of fun to look at the old magazines that the libraries had retained in hard copy. We were often distracted and amused by articles and advertisements that were not related to our topic simply because they were so different from those we see today. In addition to newspaper and magazine articles, it was exciting to collect and display some editorial cartoons. We also searched the World Wide Web, but did not find it to be as useful as we had expected. Other than the recruitment posters, our internee searches did not lead to very much information. [End Page 158]
Our teacher, Todd Goodwin suggested that the Springfield Armory Museum might have information on our topic specific to Massachusetts. After visiting, we decided the Armory was a perfect example of a local Massachusetts industry that depended on women workers during the war. The museum staff was extremely helpful and pointed us to a small exhibit about the Women Ordnance Workers who had worked there. We spoke to the archivist and were able to acquire the transcriptions of two oral history tapes of local women who had worked at the Armory during the war. Reading these transcriptions made it clear to us that these women workers were pioneers in industrial work. They spoke with pride about the fact that women had never before been allowed to be machine adjusters, run big router machines, or do other heavy labor. The war gave them the opportunity to prove themselves in these male-dominated jobs. In recalling her experience at the Armory, one woman said, "The foreman approached me one day and asked me if I wanted to become a machine adjuster—I said whoa—talk about women's liberation." 1 We found our other focus industry by reading, Punch In, Susie!, written by journalist Nell Giles who worked at General Electric Company (GE) in West Lynn in 1943. We also interviewed two women, Dr. Mary Doherty and Alice Jones, who had worked in the GE plant...