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  • "A Little Extra Persuasion”: Gender and Craft Unionism in West Virginia’s Glass Industry, 1900–1950s
  • Virginia C. Young

On January 22, 1947, a meeting was conducted between the plant management of Fostoria Glass in Moundsville, West Virginia, and the respective factory committees of two of the plant’s labor unions. Local 10 had, for more than fifty years, represented the facility’s skilled male glassworkers who worked in the “hot metal” end of the plant and made the glassware. Local 507, organized in 1936, represented the unskilled and semi-skilled miscellaneous workers, both male and female, who worked in the “cold metal” section of the facility and performed various finishing tasks on the glass. Both Local 10 and 507 were affiliated with the American Flint Glass Workers Union (AFGWU).1 Near the end of the meeting, after resolving several issues, plant management announced plans for a new plant hospital to be “properly equipped with modern first aid equipment and staffed by a competent nurse.” The proposed location for this new plant hospital was the Factory #1 Girls’ Toilet, which had been built during World War II for the numerous women who transferred to the hot metal furnace room to replace enlisted male workers. The hospital, management explained, would benefit all of Fostoria’s employees, but it would also necessitate the transfer of fourteen women who had thus far chosen to remain in hot metal. Additionally, management announced that it counted on Local 507 to provide “a little extra persuasion,” if necessary, to convince any woman who objected to the transfer.2

A glimpse into the experiences of women at Moundsville’s Fostoria Glass provides a valuable standpoint from which to consider the impact of gender in the unionized workplace. First, Fostoria’s story places the glass industry, which has recently begun to receive more attention from historians, alongside other industries as a significant economic force and employer of women.3 Second, pre- and postwar events that transformed gender relations in factories nationwide also had an impact on Fostoria’s [End Page 35] shop floor, thus linking West Virginia’s manufacturing economy to larger national trends. Finally, Fostoria Glass allows us to better understand how prewar conditions affected postwar gender dynamics when we ask why those fourteen women who remained in their hot metal positions needed “a little extra persuasion” to relinquish their jobs. World War II was not the first instance of expanded opportunities for women at Fostoria. For example, despite initially hiring women in the 1890s to perform a very narrow set of tasks, Fostoria quickly expanded women’s jobs in cold metal. Eventually men and women performed many of those same jobs, which blurred the lines meant to distinguish between them. When Local 507 was formed in 1936, those same miscellaneous workers became AFGWU members, finally giving women a share of the union pie and a seemingly equal standing in the eyes of their union brothers. Further, while their role within Local 507 was uncertain at first, their numbers were such that women became an increasingly active group within the union. Thus, the glass ceiling at Fostoria experienced periodic “cracks” in the years prior to World War II and provided women in the plant with a cumulative inclusion into the predominantly male world of craft unionism. Through Fostoria Glass we see how those cracks made it progressively harder to justify and maintain gender divisions in the years after World War II.

Over the past few decades scholars have successfully made gender, just like considerations of race and class, a necessary component of our historical understanding of labor unionism and the industrial workplace. Even as they have informed us of the pervasive practice of occupational sex-typing used to segregate women and stymie their opportunities on the shop floor, so too have they debated the impact World War II had on women’s labor activism and the move to end such discriminatory practices. 4 Discussions surrounding whether the war brought permanent or passing change have not discounted the ways in which many women expressed their dissatisfaction with the gendered order long before World War II. However, the prewar years are largely seen as a precursor to the real...