Rosie Faces Challenges
By Mary Dellasega
Josephine von Miklos was one of the first women to work in the tool-grinding room of a business that was over 140 years old. Shortly after she took the job, she says, a male colleague commented to her, “You’re a pretty good mechanic . . . for a woman.”
“Why for a woman?” I asked, and wished I hadn’t. I knew what was coming. I had heard it a dozen times before.
“Well,” he said, and spat a hunk of chewing tobacco on the floor, “it ain’t women’s work.”
But during World War II, it was women’s work, and women did it so successfully that they exceeded all expectations. Working conditions could be difficult for Rosies. Sometimes factory work was very noisy and dirty, and sometimes it was downright dangerous.
Peggy Terry had a job filling artillery shells with powder. She said, “It turned us orange. Just as orange as orange. Our hair was streaked with orange. Our hands, our faces, our necks just turned orange, even our eyeballs. None of us ever asked, ‘What is this? Is it harmful?’ We simply didn’t think about it. That was just one of the conditions of the job.”
Sometimes the women who went to work at places where only men had worked before were not treated well. Older men at their workplaces resented them and didn’t believe they were capable. Women sometimes found that the factory’s bosses didn’t respond when they complained. Some employers had not wanted to hire women in the first place: they said women were not strong enough, that they didn’t have mechanical capabilities, that they were too emotional and not dependable enough for high-paying factory jobs requiring great skill. Women workers decided that their only choice when faced with this kind of prejudice was to show the men they were competent by doing well – in fact, by doing their jobs even better than their male colleagues.
Celia Saperstein Yanish was a machinist who worked in New York City; she observed that “we worked on a competitive system.You had to keep up with the man standing next to you because he made more money if he could increase his production. If you slowed down, they would say, ‘We knew these women would be no good.’ We were exhausted all the time. The men would go home and sit down to a prepared meal, but when the women came home they had to get the meal ready for their family or themselves if they were single.”
Even though it was difficult and exhausting, Celia Saperstein Yanish got a lot of satisfaction from her job. “I loved that job,” she said, “because I produced something. I wasn’t just putting the screw into the lock. I knew it was precision work, and it required skill. It gave me a self-respect I didn’t have before. Skilled work does wonders for a person’s ego.”
Some women war workers faced trouble at home because their husbands did not want them to work. One husband said, “I never let my wife work, and I know she is a far sweeter woman than many women who have been coarsened by having to get out in the business world. I say, let’s keep women out of industry and out of the war.” Gertrude Pennington, who was an aircraft worker for Lockheed in Los Angeles, faced opposition when she told her husband about her new job:
When I got home, I said to my husband, “I got a job.”
“You got what?” He was really outraged.
“I’m going to work tonight,” I said.
“Like hell you are,” he retorted.
“I’m going to,” I said, “and you be sure to get home by 10:00 if you’re at the bar, because that’s when I’m leaving.”
I told my neighbor, “I’m going, because if I give up now, that’s it.”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll keep an eye on the house, and if I see him go home, I’ll know he’s there. Otherwise, I’ll go over at midnight and check.” So I went. He must have been watching the house to see if I’d really go. After that he didn’t speak to me for a week! He’d go out every evening and the minute I’d leave he’d come to the house.
The second week I got a paycheck and came in and waved it under his nose and said, “Take a good look at it, it’s the first paycheck I ever had.”
He sat there for a while, and then he said, “I don’t suppose you’d loan me some of that?” So I did. After the paychecks got to be regular, he didn’t squawk much. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t squawk.
In spite of all the hardships and obstacles, women found satisfaction in their defense work; they enjoyed doing challenging work, contributing to the war effort, feeling independent, and making good wages. In addition, they liked being with their female co-workers:
Instead of working alone all the time, like you do in domestic work, I was always with a bunch of other women. We had lunch together, we helped each other with our jobs. It was sort of a comradely thing, and it was very nice. Also, we rode back and forth with each other, so we made many new friends that you don’t when you’re working in an isolated job by yourself.