WW2 Women Industrial Workers


The U.S. entered World War II after Japanese bombers attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Shortly thereafter, President Franklin Roosevelt asked all citizens to join the war effort to build a ”Great Arsenal of Democracy.” Roosevelt assured the nation that this unified effort to build ships and airplanes would out produce and overwhelm the enemy.

Labor shortages quickly emerged when all able-bodied men enlisted as soldiers. Yet there was widespread opposition to hiring women or minorities. Companies began nationwide recruitment campaigns to find draft-exempt men. They lowered the age limits to hire male high school students. It wasn’t enough. The aircraft industry (which was not unionized at the time) led the way immediately after Pearl Harbor, hiring 60 women whose husbands had died in the attack.

Even before Pearl Harbor, wartime manufacturing was gearing up to help Great Britain fight the Axis with the Lend-Lease Program. Incensed that these factories would not hire African American workers, Chicago-based union organizer Asa Philip Randolph (along with the NAACP and the National Urban League) told Roosevelt that 100,000 minorities would march on Washington in the summer of 1941 if the president did not support equal opportunity. In June 1941, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in defense plants.

Thus began the greatest internal migration in the nation’s history. More than 1.2 million Southern black workers migrated to Western and Northern cities for industrial defense jobs. More than 46,000 African Americans moved to the Bay Area between 1941 and 1945.

No city in the U.S. was more affected than Richmond, a small town with a population of 23,000 people before the war started. By war’s end, the city grew to 100,000. Industry grew virtually overnight as well. In response to the war, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser decided to build four shipyards from scratch in Richmond. Eventually, the Richmond Kaiser shipyards employed 90,000 people. Nearly one-third were women.

Kaiser grew famous for introducing mass-production techniques, reducing the fourteen-month time period it took to build a cargo ship to eight weeks. Workers at the four Richmond Kaiser shipyards built 747 ships for the United States Navy and Merchant Marines, outperforming every other shipyard in the country.

The sight of women donning overalls and hoisting heavy equipment inspired the 1942 song ”Rosie the Riveter,” a nickname for female workers that spread across the country. Northern California newspapers referred to their own shipyard-working women as ”Wendy the Welder.”

After 1941, shipyards and factories operated around the clock, with workers organized into one of three eight-hour shifts. The last one from midnight to morning was called the swing shift. Recreation changed as well. Movie theaters, nightclubs, and restaurants stayed open as well. Companies instituted cafeterias and on-site food service programs. Kaiser built on-site day care centers and health maintenance organization for his employees.

By 1945, more than 18 million U.S. women worked in defense industries and support services. Shipyards in the San Francisco Bay Area employed more than 240,000 people. By wars end these shipyards built 4,600 ships-nearly half of all the cargo vessels and warships delivered for the war effort.On a plaque overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond’s Marina Bay, a shipyard worker is quoted, ”You must tell your children, putting modesty aside, that without us, without women, there would have been no spring in 1945.”