Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Working for Pay, 70 Years Ago


Fleeting Opportunities: Women Shipyard Workers in Portland and Vancouver During World War II and Reconversion by Amy Kesselman. Published by State University of New York Press, 1990.

Fleeting Opportunities is author Kesselman’s treatise on women in the wartime workforce. Her commentary combines both facts and theories found in numerous works on the subject.

Fleeting Opportunities is concerned with a historical precedent for women. During the spike in industry between 1939 and the early 1950s, women took jobs that required mechanical skills, or replaced men in all sorts of jobs required to meet the production demand of ships for World War II.

Facts about the female labor force are well documented. As early as 1947, scholars examined the phenomena of women as laborers during World War II, and some even probed the social and psychological consequences that women in the workforce experienced. So in spite of the facts about their new skills, women were seen as the temporary replacements of men in the same jobs. And these new skills did not come without a price: as Kesselman says, “In general the ideology that equated femininity with domesticity was alive and well during the war, reinforcing the sense that domestic work would always remain women’s terrain.” p. 65.

Engaging in construction and manufacturing, women pitted new skills, job pay and an ability to manage change against the expectations of family and the demands of home life. These new attributes did not wear off easily after the war, as many women had gained a better sense of their abilities, both inside and outside the home. They were not all eager to get back to home and hearth.

After the War, especially in skilled areas where men were used to having an unfettered range of movement on the promotional ladder, women were exposed to discrimination and unfair practices as the notion of women as homemaker once again trounced their new found independence. There was more than a job and pay at stake, since many had relocated just for the shipyard employment that was previously available. But this created an un-resolvable conflict between men and women workers. After the war there wasn’t enough work for both sexes to occupy the same jobs. Kesselman relates, “Loena Ellis would liked to have been a machinist after the war, but they were not allowing women to retain their status in the machinists union.” p. 111, and another woman, “Betty Cleator, who had worked as a draftsman at the shipyards, would have liked to continue after the war.” However when she’d realized that her job was gone, never to return, she refused to pay further dues to the union, saying, “I’ve paid all the money to this union I’m going to. You can’t get me a job; you can’t even get me references to one.” Also p. 111.

The book represents scholarship of the latter half of the twentieth century, written in an engaging manner, and supported by notes and an index. The book is illustrated, contains 5 chapters, and has an extensive resources section.



Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity by Katherine Archibald with a New Introduction by Eric Arnesen and Alex Lichtenstein. Published by University of Illinois Press, 2006, c1947, University of California Press.

Katherine Archibald’s Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity deals with human society and change caused by the hiring practices in shipbuilding and manufacturing during World War II. It’s interesting that the wartime shipyard would be the subject of a testimonial on the social upheaval of the times. By now, this classic is well-known as an account of workers’ struggles and their attempts to cope with race, ethnicity and gender issues as they met the demands in industrial jobs for a paycheck.

The Introduction by Eric Arnesen is complete with a notes section and prepares the current reader for the impact of Archibald’s treatise, which presents a bleak and unrestrained view of the worker and his or her predicament. Setting the scene with the mid-twentieth century worker as someone who had little direct experience in the trades, Archibald describes the worker as one who worked only to check starvation for himself and his family, but without joy. She says, “To him, his job offered little beyond the satisfaction of the fundamental need to survive; it was seldom enjoyed for itself, and it was hardly ever related to the accomplishments of society.” From p. 230. So, without the power to better their lives, workers were committed to the narrow confines of their explicit tasks. And following that, desperation thus fueled conflict as a variety of ethnic and gender issues surfaced in their day to day world.

The book’s 12 chapters cover all the above worker challenges, supported by a few photographic depictions of workers by Dorothea Lange, then working with the Office of War Information. Many others of her photographs of this period are held by the Oakland Museum in Oakland, California.