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When mother was a war worker: A Maclean’s flashback

Rosie the Riveter symbolized nearly a million Canadian women who helped make the guns and vehicles of the Second World War


 

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You wouldn't find it in any of the histories but the crucial moment of World War II — for Mrs. Llewellya Kathleen Styles, of Niagara Falls, Ont., anyway — was the sleety night of December 22, 1942.

That was when her three-and-a-half-ton truck, loaded with carbon for an Ontario battery factory, lost traction on a mountain road in Pennsylvania, slid backward and paused uncertainly on the brink of a thousand-foot gorge.

Mrs. Styles, like an eventual million sister Canadians, was a war worker. She was five feet three inches tall. She looked after a house and a family of eight, drove a Red Cross ambulance several nights a week and every day she donned a grey jacket, skirt and w'edge cap and drove a truck for her husband’s transport company.

She had learned to drive in 1939, expressly to let a male employee join the RCAF. Now, as she clung to the brakes and gazed moodily over the precipice, she thought she knew why he’d wanted to get out of trucking.

In due time two passing drivers came to her rescue. One of them, trying to help, promptly sent the teetering truck into a spin. Fortunately the nose turned downhill and the motor cut in. Mrs. Styles steered to a level place, put on the chains, went home and kept right on driving until after

World War II was won, three years later.

The fact that any housewife should be driving a truck that night, or any night, was wholly unremarkable in those giddy grimly comic days when Mama was a war worker. There never had been and probably never will be other days like them, because the war itself was unique. It was mechanized as never before, consuming guns, shells, tanks, bombs and aircraft by the billion. And it was long; it lasted nearly six years and drew nearly a million Canadian men into uniform.

It left only boys, old men and the militarily exempt at home. Someone had to man the war plants and civilian services. And so a shrill, gallant, giggling lipsticked legion of mothers, grandmothers and adolescents invaded the last male sanctuaries: factories, trucks, steel mills and railway yards.

“Women won the war,” insists Ruth Hamilton of Toronto, the plain-talking former co-ordinator of women's employment for the Unemployment

Insurance Commission. “The ones who saved this country w'ere the ones who sweated it out on the shifts. They should have decorated a symbolic war worker.”

Perhaps they should have. They could have given her the Emancipation Medal with Bar, or the Order of Cowed Male Foremen. For Mama did more than merely win a war. She improved the status, morale and working conditions of her sex more than anybody since Carry Nation, and she brought her male bosses to their knees in the process.

In 1939, 569,000 women worked in all Canadian industry. Most of these w'ere in clerical jobs because, as every foreman thought he knew, a woman could scarcely open a can of beans without slashing her wrists. Five years later 960,000 women were in war and civilian industry (plus another 800,000 on farms). Fully half of them were doing men's work, and doing it well.

With fingers sensitive from years of stitching buttonholes, shelling peas and rilling husbands' wallets, women excelled at such intricate jobs as filling fuses, assembling radio tubes and operating small machines. But the hand that rocked the cradle was good at almost anything: paint spraying, auto assembly, spot welding, light punch-press work and riveting. Women ran streetcars, operated gas pumps, trimmed meat in packing plants, bottled beer in breweries and moved log booms at pulp mills.

The Steel Company of Canada at Hamilton had them cleaning up plant railway tracks and loading freight cars. Canadian National Railways in Toronto assigned them to oiling engines, cleaning ashes from pits, pushing wheelbarrows and firing up boilers. The CNR liked them because, says an ex-superintendent, “To our great surprise they did exactly as they were told!” At least one of the women liked the CNR, too; one day in the freight yards she caught up with her husband who'd been missing fifteen years.

Thousands went into the major war plants of Ontario and Quebec, making Bren, Sten and Browning guns, aircraft, rifles, ammunition, antiaircraft guns and radar equipment. But they worked everywhere else too, from Nova Scotia shipyards to B. C. salmon canneries.

Eighty percent of them were between the ages of eighteen and forty but they also included schoolgirl farmerettes who pitched hay on summer holidays and a seventy-two-year-old ex-farm woman who rose at 4 a.m. daily to be on time for her job as inspector in a Toronto arsenal.

They were variously inspired by patriotism, boredom and money. They were housemaids, housewives, students, Junior Leaguers and ladies of assorted professions. The Bren gun assembly line at Toronto’s John Inglis plant included a girl medical intern; Margaret (Kitty Cat) MacDonald, wife of the late Mickey, who was then public enemy number one; and a woman who blandly hurried off shift each day to a second full - time job, prostitution.

“She told us her beat was the King-Sherbourne streets district.” says Bill Bolam, a John Inglis superintendent. “I don’t know how she made out there, but around here she was one of the best workers we had.”

In Flin Flon, Man., the wife of a British diplomat worked as a supervisor for the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company. A Toronto sculptress, Merle Foster, helped build Lancaster airplanes and, later, was women’s personnel officer for Victory Aircraft. The Massey-Harris aircraft division in Weston hired an English governess who’d recently been teaching maths and grammar to a Royal Navy admiral's son. A Hollywood starlet, Helen Gray Fraser, was a transport driver with de Havilland Aircraft.

Somehow, skilled workers came out of this potpourri. Their common denominator was that they were women in war. For some it gave a sense of purpose for the first time in their lives. For all, it was a rare adventure.

Somehow, too, the state of emergency sharpened one’s sense of awareness so that, even now, trivial details stand out in the memory. Remember those days — when skirts were short, hair was long, butter was rationed and everyone was Knitting for Britain?

They were the sad-sweet days of sudden friendships, hasty courtships, tearful farewells in cavernous railway stations and a hit tune called Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree with Anyone Else But Me. And they were the strangely exhilarating days when posters screamed,“Men’s Lives Depend On You"; when suddenly one’s whole world revolved around obscure place names like Cassino or Caen: and when the voice of Churchill, trumpeting through the static from beleaguered London. brought a quick tingle of pride.

Even the music was in step with the times. Boys in ill-fitting blue and khaki were Hinging their girls through a headlong dance called the jitterbug. Pianos were rumbling with the hurrying rhythm of boogie-woogie.

In this heady atmosphere the war worker was a sort of national heroine. Her turbaned head, with curls billowing out in defiance of safety regulations, looked down from billboards almost as often as the rock-jawed airman who kept inviting young men to become World Travelers at twenty-one.

Every city had its Miss War Worker contest, with contestants roundly and firmly packed into form-fitting coveralls. Advertisers were in seventh heaven.

Movie houses ran morning films for girls coming from or going to work. Posters cried. “Shh-sh! She’s on the night shift." There was an Anti-Noise Week and everyone hummed "Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet.”

Rosie the Riveter (every girl was Rosie, whether she riveted or not) did not have to live on love alone. Employers were willing to pay her almost as much as a man. A woman aircraft production worker, for example, averaged seventy-nine cents an hour in 1944 in most provinces, three cents less than men.

This pleasant revolution in attitudes came almost overnight. It was 1942 before the first great manpower shortage caused Canada to take women workers seriously. Then, abruptly, it made up for the oversight with compulsory registration of all women between twenty and twenty-four; an order-in-council that led to the establishment of day nurseries; and the Women’s Voluntary Service which organized housewives for everything from donating blood to Victory Gardens.

By the end of the year the emergency war training program had graduated some 20,000 women aircraft overhaulers, metalworkers, woodworkers, acetylene welders, instrument makers, draftsmen, power-machine operators and radio assemblers.

And industry needed still more. Radios, magazines and newspapers shouted the appeal. From coast to coast, by telephone. telegraph and letter women replied. So many offered that temporarily hundreds were turned away. But when the Italian campaign began in 1943 — and the military build-up for the invasion of Europe got under way — new shortages sprang up everywhere.

Laundries, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, farms and. of course, war plants, needed more women. Employers were no longer fussy about age or education. Indeed, they had discovered that the old were as good or better than the young. They were steady, dependable and careful, which was all-important in munitions work.

“We had to dig up women where we could,” recalls the forthright ex-UIC coordinator Ruth Hamilton. ‘1 even stopped them on the street to ask if they’d work.”

"We traveled all over the province and beyond,” says H. G. (Rik) Kettle, then a Massey-Harris personnel officer. "Wherever we could find bodies, we were interested.”

“Welcome to Pork Cutting”

The new bodies interested male factory workers, too. once they got over the initial shock of seeing sex appeal on the assembly line. They teased, pinched, ogled and strutted like small boys, sometimes at risk of life and limb. At Allanson Armature Manufacturing Company in Toronto an elderly machine operator and amateur soft-shoe dancer discovered he could complete one quick buck-and-wing around his lathe in the time it took to turn out one part. He did so regularly to the delight of the ladies, until the day the machine snatched off his sweater and very nearly took him with it.

The men were inveterate practical jokers. The men of Victory Aircraft at Malton soon discovered that two deft snips of the shoulder straps sometimes caused a lady to lose her coveralls. At Toronto's Canada Packers they had yet another brand of humor, as blond Lois Harrison, now an employee of a publishing company but then a student, discovered one memorable summer vacation.

On her first day at work she said patriotically, “I want to crack the eggs that go into powdered eggs for Britain."

"We've got people that can crack eggs without trying, miss," said the personnel man, and set her to scraping pork front quarters. The next day a male employee offered his hand with a friendly "Welcome to Pork Cutting," and pressed two pigs' eyeballs into her palm. At coffee break other men surreptitiously piled her bench with work so that, on returning, she was literally up to her hips in hocks. But. like most women workers, she stuck it out and was duly rewarded: she was promoted to scraping hind quarters.

Male heckling drove many girls to tears.

“I kept a large box of Kleenex on my desk and automatically passed it out when a girl came in,” says Merle Foster, women’s personnel officer at Victory Aircraft.

But sooner or later they brought the men to heel, somehow. Sometimes they fought fire with fire. An east-coast shipyard had a sign that said “NO SWEARING, PLEASE. THERE MAY BE GENTLEMEN PRESENT,” and at Flin Flon, Man., a girl named Dawn, with tattooed arms and a thorough command of the language, swore so fluently and frequently that a man on a neighboring machine complained to the superintendent. She was moved.

More often women won the upper hand just by being women. “They're not as tough as men,” points out Ruth Hamilton, “but they’re very unscrupulous when there’s a man around.”

Women soon discovered, for example, that strategic use of tears would turn any snarling 250-pound foreman into a simpering apologetic hulk. They demanded, and received, coffee breaks, piped-in music and washrooms with dressing tables, wide mirrors and pastel colors. Then they drove management to distraction by visiting the washrooms in parties of two or more and staying for hours. Eventually the factories hired women to patrol washrooms.

Being women, they tried to change everything. They brought posies and potted plants to work. They filled plant newspapers with items like this from the de Havilland Mosquito: "The girls look smart in their new beige-and-green overalls. How about snappying up the men’s appearance? Why couldn’t they wear shorts?” (The men of de Havilland resisted that one with surly silence.)

Clothes were still important, even to the coverall girls. An American firm. Allis-Chalmers, pacified its women with a slick-paper Vogue-style magazine of war-worker styles. Snug-fitting colored coveralls became standard attire in most plants, for reasons of safety and morale. Naturally the girls had to improve upon them, usually with a lace handkerchief peeping from a pocket to prove they were girls, although the cut of their costume rarely left room for doubt.

In the beginning women wore street clothes on some jobs, but their natural vanity immediately got the better of them. They began showing up in their Sunday silks, furs and high heels. The heels tripped them. The furs were soon laden with sawdust and iron filings. The silks set up static electricity, particularly dangerous around explosives.

There were other hazards, too. At John Inglis a statuesque girl once threw her assembly line into chaos by reporting for duty in an open-work lace blouse and no brassiere. A woman welder in an aircraft plant suffered serious burns while making a futile grab for her falling leather pants, in Flin Flon, a Venus in a loose blouse leaned too close to a press, entangled her chest and required several stitches. Her distress was almost equaled by that of her shift boss, who had to write a formal accident report for the Workmen's Compensation Board.

On the whole women were not particularly accident prone. At first they refused to tuck their curls under their headgear, or remove rings and costume jewelry. But whenever a worker was scalped or lost a finger around moving machinery, there was a noticeable increase in safety consciousness.

War plants could put women into mens clothing but there were some things they couldn't change. Women were particularly susceptible to fatigue and dermatitis. The latter came from handling TNT (‘Tve seen girls with arms like raw beefsteak, up to the shoulders,” says a former women's counselor). The former came from a combination of factors. Women have about a million and a half fewer of the oxygen-carrying red corpuscles in their blood than men. causing slower recuperation from fatigue. Sometimes they were overworked outside the plant. Many single girls held an extra part-time job. Working mothers had two jobs, too. They rose at 4 or 5 a.m., swallowed breakfast, herded their children to a day nursery manned by matrons and grandmothers, and caught a crowded streetcar in the grey dawn, to be on shift at seven.

Many ills were imaginary. In the United States the word went around that riveting caused breast cancer and other female disorders described as “riveters’ ovaries.” Finally an aircraft plant hired a woman doctor to study the job, incognito. She found only mental and emotional maladjustment. The girls wanted sympathy and attention, used their muscles too tensely in trying to please the boss, and, above all, were suckers for every old wives’ tale.

A similar situation cropped up at a shell - filling plant at St. Paul l'Ermite, Que., where many French - Canadian women workers were quitting the job. They’d heard that exposure to TNT and amytol made women sterile. The plant had to call in parish priests to assure them that the condition was temporary at worst, and could be avoided.

Elsewhere, sterility was hardly a problem. In the United States there were an estimated sixty pregnancies per thousand women workers each year. One plant calculated that twenty-two of every thousand women who applied for medical benefits had had abortions. Every large plant had women counselors who helped and advised mothers, wed or unwed.

Most factories let them work until pregnancy interfered with the job. At Victory Aircraft in Toronto this was once carried to the extreme. After viewing a very expectant mother one morning, women's personnel officer Merle Foster urged her to take time off.

“Nothing wrong with me," insisted the girl. The worried Miss Foster called in her own mother for consultation and asked, “How soon?”

“Pretty soon,” said Mrs. Foster, and she was right. The child was born that night—off shift, fortunately.

But when they weren't aching, itching, complaining, weeping or having babies, women did a superlative job, particularly where tedious detail was involved. A case in point was seen at the General Engineering Company of Scarborough, Ont., where 4,500 women filled forty-one different types of fuses and other units under strictest regulations.

On entering the plant they stripped to cotton shorts and brassieres, surrendered all contraband (candy, matches, money, jewelry), passed inspection and moved to the “clean” area. They put on cotton slacks, coats and bandanas, and shoes pegged with wood. They scrubbed hands and fingernails and walked quietly, double file, down corridors with rubberized rounded sides that would not collect dust. Then, under artificial light (sunlight on metal might have caused combustion) they did a job so intricate that, says a former G ECO official, “It simply wasn't for men’s hands.” G ECO did not have a single fatal explosives accident during the war.

The demand for women workers tapered off in 1945. With demobilization many were thrown out of work, to the mixed regret and relief of many foremen. But the feminine influence lingered on. It had become respectable for married women to hold jobs, and 662.000 now do, compared to 61.000 in 1941. Women in general make up about twenty-five percent of the Canadian labor force, compared to nineteen percent in 1941.

The old servant class vanished. Housemaids refused to go back to ten dollars a week and a cold room in the attic. Eventually New' Canadians filled most domestic jobs in homes and hospitals.

The rest of the women were glad to go home. Today some of them live in homes purchased with war-plant wages. They are middle-aged or older, with children or grandchildren. Their hair is shorter, their skirts are longer and they still wear slacks, although most of them shouldn't. And the war-plant years, viewed now through a haze of nostalgia, look like the best years of their lives.

Let Mrs. Jean Young, of Flin Flon. Man., mother of Toronto novelist and newspaperman Scott Young, speak for all of them. In 1943 she became a timekeeper with the Hudson Bay Mining and Smelting Company. She was 47, “green to the ways of the industrial world, shy and afraid." She bolstered her spirits with a dab of cologne every morning and was regularly told by a male she smelled “like a bloody drugstore."

“But on my last day at work they stood me on a huge machine." she remembers. “They gave me a beautiful watch engraved 'To Jean from the Boys,' and a tremendous party. As far as I could see were the dear dirty faces ... It was a part of my life I shall never forget ..."

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