One of the most surprising aspects of the wartime era was not how often working-class women followed the advice of critics, experts, and the media, but how often and how many working-class women behaved contrary to the messages they received. The conflicts and contradictions in their culture and behavior reflected the the nature of a transitional period in history. Often, opinion polls and the statements of the women disagreed with the reality of their lives.
While the majority of these women maintained strong ties to the domestic ideal, their lives seemed to be moving in another direction. The 10 percent increase in the number of employed married women, for example, foreshadowed the trend that would continue after the war and become increasingly popular among professional women during the 1960s and 1970s. (1)
Whether out of necessity or not, working-class women attempted to take full advantage of the new opportunities and options that the war environment provided. Although 90 percent of those women who entered the wartime labor force had been previously employed, the options they perceived led to their changing attitudes toward employment. (2)
Another option that opened for working women, labor unions, seemed contradictory to their competitive tendencies. Although employers, educators, the media, and religious leader urged women to compete, the increase from 800,000 to three million female union members during the war seemed to suggest that cooperation was important to working-class women also. Considering the anti-labor propaganda and legislation, this confidence in collective action revealed that many women rejected the advice offered by the critics of organized labor. Regardless of the attacks on unions, by 1944 a survey by McGraw-Hill Publishers found that 83 percent of American union members believed that labor organizations provided the workers' "best chance of making a good living." Half of the non-union workers agreed. (3) Clearly, many Americans saw no contradiction in engaging in both collective and competitive activities.
For working-class women prior to World War II, marriage to a union man represented a positive step in status. Daughters of a union member, both Jewel Bretel and her sister Charlene Goodman believed their husbands' union cards provided them with a degree of security and respectability. Wallace Goodman, Charlene's husband, even claimed that his father-in-law insisted that he join the Carpenters' Union when he married her. (4)
This status and security became more available to women directly during World War II. As a result of the increase in women members, the AFL, the CIO, and independent unions emphasized issues such as equal pay, protective legislation, and social programs which addressed the needs of women workers.
Favoring those issues which interested women members did not represent a major shift in official union policy. Since the 1910s, the AFL had endorsed such women's rights issues as suffrage and equal pay. The CIO had emphasized organizing women and had successfully organized them throughout the United States including every state in the anti-union South and also supported women's issues. Although equal pay, social services, day care, and protective legislation should have concerned men, only when number of women in unions increased did these issues receive priority consideration. (5)
Two issues, social programs and protective legislation, revealed a continuing reluctance within organized labor to bring women's issues into the collective bargaining process, though. Both of these problems tended to be referred to government consideration rather than being included in contract negotiations. This stance led to an ironic development.
Memories of the depression era crisis which had required the development of government welfare programs led organized labor to support the continued growth of the welfare state. This platform would have some negative consequences for working-class women. Intervention into working-class life resulted from this faith in government and professionals to design programs that enhanced working-class life.
On the other hand, the leaders of the wartime labor movement believed working-class women would have influence in planning these programs. Union and auxiliary women testified in congressional hearings and served on commissions to study problems. But, working-class women had little input in the development of programs. Day care programs established in Dallas and Minneapolis exemplified how this occurred. Although labor representatives served as consultants, the final committee to operate the centers consisted of representatives from child welfare, education, and government. (6)
As organized labor referred day care and other women's issues to the War Manpower Commission, finding solutions seemed to be a remote prospect, especially for mothers who were employed. The policy of that government office included the theory that "the first responsibility of women with young children, in war as in peace, is to give suitable care in their homes to their children." Occasionally, social issues did emerge as part of contract negotiations. The United Electrical Workers (UEW), with 683,000 female members constituting 40 percent of the membership, addressed day care problems. In other cases, such as the Kaiser Company's day care centers, labor and management cooperated to solve problems. (7)
In general, however, female union members had more success in areas that affected men also. In the push to obtain living wages so that they would not need social services, both women and men could claim many wartime successes. In one of the best examples, the increased acceptance of the theory of equal pay, men and women cooperated to decrease the chances of employers exploiting women who might be tempted to work for lower wages.
In 1942, the AFL vowed to support equal pay and seniority rights for women as "a matter of justice." The CIO also fought for equal pay and supported a strike at Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company in Detroit over the issue. During the war, the UEW signed 142 similar contracts, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) signed fifty additional equal pay contracts. In 1943, the Transport Unions stated they would "tolerate no difference in men's and women's wages." General Order 16 of 1942 by the National War Labor Board (NWLB) encouraged this trend by allowing employers to adjust pay to equalize male and female rates without approval of the board. By 1943, five hundred companies had equalized pay rates, and as a result, women's wages rose more than men's during World War II. (8)
This trend represented a major victory for women. Prior to the war, equal pay contracts had been rare. For many female workers, even joining a union seemed impossible. Some internationals continued to refuse membership to women and minorities while other unions, especially AFL locals in the South, allowed placing women into auxiliaries without the right to vote on union issues although they paid dues. (9) By the end of the war, all AFL and CIO unions accepted women as members.
In Texas, several locals were among those who changed policies about allowing female members. The United Paperworkers International in Lufkin had no female members until 1943. That year, male members voted to give women equal union and seniority rights, and by 1944, the local elected three women officers and a femle Central Labor Council Delegate. A similar situation occurred in the UEW at the Houston Light and Power Company. Union members voted to accept thirty-three women members as equals in June, 1943, and ended that local's sexist membership policy. (10)
This latter example also illustrated how women in traditional female occupations benefited from greater union access. Although most of the union women were switchboard operators, their wages rose proportionately to male jobs in each contract. In some instances, their wages surpassed male-dominated jobs such as appliance repairmen. (11)
Other union women in traditional occupations also took advantage of wartime regulations and labor actions. Textile workers, in particular, demanded and received increases in wages. The International Ladies Garment Workers Union's (ILGWU) Southwestern District which included Texas reported twenty-three new locals and 3,000 new members between 1940 and 1944. The union claimed 98 percent success in obtaining wage increases ratified by the NWLB. Due to labor shortages, textile industries had to raise wages to attract employees tempted by defense industry jobs. Once higher wages and better working conditions had been guaranteed by contract agreements, workers hoped post-war losses would be minimized. (12)
Women also developed other benefit programs which made membership attractive. The ILGWU, for example, utilized their growing strength to offer members classes in consumer rights, access to cultural events, and even had a summer home for vacations. (13) As a result of their progressiveness, President Franklin D. Roosevelt praised the ILGWU by stating:
Your organization has been a great stabalizing
and constructive force in the ladies garment
industry and has successfully improved the
condition of labor in this trade. It has been
a pioneer in its enlightened policy of making
public each year an itmeized account of its
income and disbursements. (14)
In other unions, women experienced similar successes, and occasionally they had exceptional ones. Grievance procedures assisted female workers in addressing discrimination and sexual harrassment. Union actions also gave women hope for better futures as illustrated by an announcement by a Dallas Waitresses and Cooks Union which stated, "We are very glad indeed to announce to members of Labor unions that Nellie's Cafe is now under new management and has signed an agreement with the Waitresses and Cooks Union Locals." (15) Laundry workers in Baytown, Texas, telephone operators in Fort Worth, and mill workers in Houston made similar announcements followed by contracts which provided for better wages, vacations, holidays, and working conditions. Although unusual, some contracts included such benefits as protection of jobs during maternity leave for up to one year. (16)
Of course, not all successes came easily. The largest wartime strike indicated women did not fear confrontation. It also demonstrated determination to prevent unfair competition. In 1944, the telephone operators went on strike in Ohhio and were followed by workers in other northeastern states as well as many sympathy walk-outs throughout the United States which lasted only a few hours. They accused their employers of attracting "carpetbaggers" from rural areas to the cities with an $18.25 bonus. The operators argued the company wanted to maintain the war tight labor market without raising wages. They also claimed the NWLB failed to treat their independent unions on equal terms with AFL and CIO unions. The oper5ators won their case, and the company was ordered to stop the bonuses. Although a four-hour walk-out by Fort Worth operators required forcing some of the union members to leave switchboards unattended, most female union members indicated a willingness to make sacrifices and work together in order to improve working conditions. (17)
Not all wartime union actions, however, had such positive implications for women. One of the most harmful yet common contract agreements dealt with protecting the seniority rights of enlisted men. Most agreements included strong clauses which allowed veterans to keep their seniority. An agreement signed by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers in Buffalo, New York, was representative. The March, 1943, contract stipulated that soldiers would be granted a leave of absence with full retuention of seniority rights plus "cumulative seniority during absence." In addition, seniority would not be affected by "race, marital status, or dependents," thereby disallowing favoritism of women workers who supported amilies. (18) Because of this, women who replaced servicement could not possibly accumulate enough seniority to protect their jobs after the war. There would be no "affirmative action" top undo previous discriminations.
The issue of protecting women's jobs in the post-war era proved to be one of the most difficult problems to face organized labor. Women as well as men agreed veterans deserved preferential treatment. Since the majority of women surveyed stated they wanted to keep their jobs after the war, unions found themselves in an unwinnable situation.
At the CIO Convetion in 1944, Dorothy Bellanca of the Amagamated Clothing Workers addressed the issue. She stated:
Recognize this problem as your problem, as
protecting your jobs as well as the woman's
job, as giving her equal citizenship in your
organization and your industry, you will hold
your job and you will hold it on an equal basis
with women. (19)
The Texas CIO sympathized with this view, and in 1945, passed Resolution 6. It stated that the problem of unemployment would not be solved by "putting women back in the kitchen." The resolution claimed that this tactic would play into the hands of anti-union employers who would pit men against women. The delegates voted to agree that many women would have to support their families after the war just as they had prior to 1941. The ILGWUwith workers engaged in making military clothing also acknowledged the problem. A 1944 report stated the "union must face the problem of a surplus of workers and surplus of production after the war>" No concrete solutions to the problem appeared. (20)
Most experts, such as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, simply hoped many women would return to their prewar jobs or become full-time homemekers without complaint. Others tried to minimize the importance of women in labor organizations by suggesting they did not participate in union activities. Labor representatives claimed women accepted the advantages of union membership but begrudged paying dues and failed to attend meetings. Mary Anderson of the Women's Bureau explained that the attempt to assimilate so many new female members led to the problems since they had little knowledge of the history of the struggle to organize the unorganized. (21)
Of course, labor scandals involving women did little to enhance the reputation of women union members. When the president and secretary of the Pecan Shellers Union in San Antonio stole thousands of dollars from their organization, they destroyed their union and hurt the efforts of other union women who wanted the opportunity to serve in a leadership capacity. No evidence, however, appeared that proved women were any more corrupt or less interested in union causes than their male counterparts. (22)
Regardless of the criticism, women managed to win in a wide range of office elections. On the national level, women directed union committees such as the CIO War Relief Committee's Latane Lambert. She explained that many women could not explore leadership possibilities because they worked eight hours, kept house, and took care of children. They had little time for leadership. (23)
Many women, though, did find time to lead. Most of them represented women who began union activities in the years before World War II. They had taken the normal, although slow, route through the labor bureacracy. Mrs. Hershel Davis became president of the UAW, Pauline Newman directed the educational programs for the ILGWU, and Jennie Matyas served as the AFL representative to the Advisory Commission of the War Manpower Commission. (24)
On the state and local level women also increased their influence. In Texas, both Emily Jordan and Ethel Still served as vice-presidents of the State Federation of the AFL. In 1946, the Texas State CIO nominated a woman as president. Alda Mae Cornaud declined stating, "I feel like that is a man's job" and accepted a vice-president's post. Other women served as local presidents and delegates to district, state, and international conventions. (25)
Union women also proved themselves capable of forming a national coalition to support their causes. Unions, auxiliaries, Eleanor Roosevelt, and working-class leaders joined forces to campaign against the passage of the Equal Right Amendment (ERA). Mary Anderson, the Directors of the Women's Bureau in Washington, D.C., provided the leadership in this crusade. By opposing the ERA, Anderson and her followers followed the recommendations of a 1942 AFL report which stated the ERA would "deny homemakers and industrial women the benefit of the laws which seek to assure the child the support of his father" and would threaten existing protective legislation for women. The CIO agreed, and in 1933, its president, Philip Murray, described the ERA as dangerous. He stated the amendment would be used as "a wedge against all social laws protecting workers." (26)
Anderson saw few rewards for working-=class women in the ERA. She believed the feminist call for "equal opportunity" would be unsuitable for working-class women. She had come from the garment and shoe industries and related best to working-class women and their issues. She proposed an alternative to the ERA which she felt represented their views. The Anti=ERA Charter recognized inequality. The Charter demanded full political, civil, and educational rights but preserved the "safeguards against physically harmful conditions of employment and economic exploitation>" It also called for the right of "united action" in order to solve the problems women faced. Anderson believed organized labor could and should be responsible for offering solutions. (27)
The fears expressed by working-class women in regard to the ERA had validity. The majority of ERA advocates, though, could not accept these arguments. While both the ERA and Anti-ERA Charter failed to become law, both political parties adopted the ERA within their platforms. This victory for the proponents of the ERA reflected the growing influence of professional women even though their numbers continued to be considerably fewer than women outside of their class. (28)
At the same time working-class women also achieved a victory as protective labor legislation spread during the war years. By 1944, the majority of states protected women workers. Twenty-three states, for example, limited the number of days women could work, and forty-three states regulated the number of hours women could work. Texas, for example, allowed women to work a maximukm of nine hours per day and fifty-four hours per week. Other states regulated night work, rest periods, and the type of tasks women could perform including some states that banned women from mising alcoholic beverages unless married to the owner of the bar, working in mines or with nitro and amino compounds, and operating a variety of machinery including cranes. (29)
These regulations had been the result of the work of union women, but their good intentions created antagonism. The laws continued to intensify male sentiments that they had the worst jobs. However, men also feared open competition for jobs as suggested by the ERA. Job insecurity forced them to accept the regulations while the fear of lost superiority prevented them from making similar protective demands. Sexism added conflict within working-class culture. (30)
Another organization within labor structure had become very familiar with this problem of sexism and utilized the wartime environment to fight policies which discriminated against them. The women's auxiliaries t represented the only labor organization totally dominated by women and revealed how willing working-class women were to participate in national and world affairs. The auxiliary song summarized their view of collective actions.
The more we get together, together, together,
The more we get together, the happier we'll be;
For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends ---
The more we get together the happier we'll be.
The more we help the union, the union, the union,
The more we help the union, the stronger we'll be.
For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends ---
The more we help the union, the stronger we'll be.
The more we boost the label, the label, the label;
The more we boost the label, the richer we'll be;
For your friends are my friends,
And my friends are your friends ---
The more we boost the label, the richer we'll be. (31)
World War II marked the beginning of a dynamic period in the history of auxiliaries whose members included the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of union members. Although some charters had difficulty in maintaining membership and participation as women went to work, those who continued their involvement worked in behalf of all working-class women. Prior to the war, auxiliary women had not been very active in politics. In some instances this resulted from union restrictions on discussions of political and religious matters. Auxiliaries tended to devote most of their time and energy to the union label campaign, benevolent causes, and planning social events. (32)
The war environment and the changing role of women led to an alteration in auxiliary priorities. In Texas, for example, the Texas State AFL gave full voting privileges to auxiliary members in all union activities by 1941. The CIO allowed auxiliary members voting rights on the committee level that same year. Although the national AFL and CIO organizations refused to allow auxiliary members full membership, this state action seemed to encourage women to expand their role in union activities. (33)
During the war, auiliaries developed educational programs to train their members for joining labor unions. Auxiliary women tended to have premarital employment experience and became some of the first to obtain wartime jobs. Auxiliaries also educated members about political candidates favorable to labor, worked in consumer education programs, joined war-related volunteer projects, and became involved in women's rights issues. They also assisted in the campaign to get women to join the military. (34)
Laura Eader, president of the Women's International Auxiliary to the Photo-Engravers' Union, announced auxiliaries would prove the collective power of the housewife. They supported price controls and other issues of interest to homemakers. The auxiliaries represented an attempt to create an organization for housewives, an occupation generally overlooked by organized labor. (35)
During the war, auxiliary members and leaders became involved in national projects. The president of the CIO Congress of Women's Auxiliaries (CWA), Faye Stephenson, served on commissions and testified in hearings which addressed working conditions, day care, child labor, civil defense, taxation, and school lunch programs. As a result, the CWA was named as one of the fity most outstanding women's organizations by the International Assembly of Women. (36)
In Texas, auxiliary members actively pursued these and other causes. The Oil Workers' Union Auxiliary addressed racism in Port Arthur which led to the adoption of a 1943 resolution urging employers to "offer these good women an opportunity to assist in our war effort." Other auxiliaries "pledged their efforts to win the war." They discussed the progress of the war, bought war bonds, sewed for the Red Cross, and collected aluminum. (37) Auxiliary members, like union women, reflected the changes in working-class culture. No longer content to stay in the background, they worked hard to gain the acceptance and respect of union men.
The wartime activities of women in organized labor revealed a great deal about working-class female leadership and collective capabilities. Within the four years of the war, they had become successful as competitors also. Although they had received little encouragement or preparation for their new roles, working-class women accepted the challenge. By the end of World War II, organized labor had rewarded members with opportunities in leadership and with favorable contract agreements. One question remained.
What would be the lasting influence of these experiences and accomplishments? In 1945, this could not be predicted. Working-class female life had changed, but the extent and repurcussions of those changes would be left for others to debate. One thing would be clear, though. Working-class women had sought comaraderie, success, and economic opportunities through collective actions. They would not forget their experiences.