Women have a long history of surprising men in times of turmoil

By Justin Smith for the idahostatejournal.com

During World War II, a massive propaganda campaign by the United States encouraged women to enter the workforce to keep the factories and industries running for the war effort. The face of that campaign became “Rosie the Riveter” with her sleeve pulled up over a flexed arm and the slogan, “We can do it!” Rosie was an effective campaign and thousands of women responded. However, despite what some may think, it was not unprecedented.

Throughout history, women have worked and often taken up the labor men did while the men went to war. Cows needed milking, fields needed harvesting, and mills had to make flour. In the Civil War, women did all that and more, including working as doctors in field hospitals and laboring in munitions factories.

This expert machine operator in the Pocatello railroad shops in 1917 was formerly a schoolteacher.

World War I was the first major war of the industrialized era and the United States was a nation that depended on the railroad to move goods and materials from one end of the continent to the other. When the nation entered the war, skilled labor was badly needed by the military. Machinists, engineers and other men joined up or were hired away to work in military factories or building and repairing railroads in Europe and on the trans-Siberian railroad rehabilitation. That quickly depleted the labor pool, and by late 1917 the Oregon Short Line of Union Pacific was facing a severe labor shortage.×

As Railway Age reported in November of 1917, “It is quite unnecessary to state that no curtailing of the output of the railroad shops can be permitted at this time. In spite of all that the railroads can do cars and locomotives will deteriorate faster than they can be repaired. … To keep the equipment of the railroads of this country in condition has now become a patriotic duty.” Without the railroads, the nation would grind to a halt and eventually collapse.

The railroads tried wage increases with little success. War is profitable and war factories paid higher wages than the railroad ever could. As Railway Age conceded, “The logical way out of the difficulty seems to be to employ women in greater numbers for doing work in the shops.”

And so they did. Women were recruited in many industries and stepped up to do their patriotic duty. To the surprise of the railroad, women proved themselves to be quick learners, hard workers and adept at many tasks they had never been considered for before.

Women quickly stepped into rolls such as cleaning locomotives — a hard and grimy affair. However, they also were found in more skilled positions running lathes, grinders, bolt cutters, milling machines and working as tracers at drafting tables. Their smaller hands, attention to detail and ability to work with delicate parts like globe valves made them ideal for many tasks.

Of course, many of the women were unskilled to begin with in the shops. However, “Those who show special ability,” proclaimed the Railway Age, “are trained on machines of all kinds, and some are capable of running almost any machine in the shop. It is the opinion of those in charge that a considerable proportion of the women workers could readily be developed into skilled machine operators.”

From the machine shop to the coach shop to the paint shop, women quickly did just that. Perhaps more surprisingly, by 1917 the “race barrier” had already largely been broken in most railways and shop foremen in Pocatello had already “experimented” with hiring Shoshone and Bannock workers from the reservation (again expressing surprise at their abilities). Black men were also seen in the shops and on the railroads. So, along with the white women who entered the workforce, there were also Black women and they, too, showed themselves to be adept at running the machines in the shops.

This did not go unnoticed by the unions — the women’s unions, that is. They quickly spoke up and declared the ability of women to work alongside men for the good of the nation and demanded workman’s compensation for injuries, equal wages and other benefits.

Two black women work on bolt cutters in Pocatello during World War I

They also demanded the right to vote. While Idaho had passed a women’s suffrage law in 1896, the rest of the United States was a bit further behind. A constitutional amendment was floating around in Washington, but it was struggling to get traction in Congress. The Woman Citizen journal noted in October of 1918 that the right to vote across the nation was being slowed by the actions of a single powerful Republican senator — William E. Borah of Idaho. Borah’s reasoning for holding up a constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage? Idaho had granted suffrage to women already, the other states could follow her lead. The Woman Citizen devoted two and half pages to pillorying Sen. Borah for not standing up for the rights of women on a national level as Idaho had already done.

Ultimately, Borah lost the fight. One hundred years ago in 1920, just two years after women helped win the Great War, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified stating, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

Less than a decade later, the Great Depression struck, and many men and many more women were out of work as industry contracted across the nation. The gains women made in the workplace would not return until the next World War when Rosie and other women once again stepped up to do their patriotic duty.

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