Women in wartime

World War II munitions factory workers gather in Towson for national 'Rosie the Riveter' convention

June 20, 2008|By Kevin Rector | Kevin Rector,SUN REPORTER

In 1942, 20-year-old Elsie Arnold heard surprising news: The Glenn L. Martin Co. in Middle River was hiring women to help build airplanes for World War II.

At the time, industrial work was largely the territory of men, but as the war continued, women across the country were increasingly filling positions left by men shipped off to fight. Seeing an opportunity to make money and help in the war effort, Arnold moved to the area from Garrett County and joined a growing number of women drilling, riveting and soldering bombers and other planes at the Martin aircraft company.

"We were all there for a purpose," Arnold, now 86, said of the female work force. "Everyone felt it was a patriotic move."

This weekend, about 70 of the approximately 6 million women nationwide who took on traditionally male jobs in munitions and manufacturing plants during the 1940s are expected to gather in Towson for the American Rosie the Riveter Association's national convention at the Burkshire Marriott Conference Hotel.

The organization is named after the iconic 1940s image of "Rosie the Riveter," which captured the "We Can Do It!" spirit among young women of the time faced with supporting themselves, the war effort and the national economy. The "Rosies," women now mostly in their 80s, transformed employment realities in the United States by pulling on factory slacks before it was socially acceptable for women to wear pants, mastering complicated tools and working six days a week in non-air-conditioned plants.

"It really opened up a great deal for women," said Arnold, who lives in Towson.

The association will host a "Rosie the Riveter Musical" at 8 p.m today at the Burkshire, and a USO-style dance featuring 1940s music at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Bykota Senior Center in Towson. Mary Nichols, president of the association's Baltimore chapter, said she hopes the public will attend the events to get a history lesson on the "Rosies."

"This is living history, and so many people do not know a lot about World War II," said Nichols of Rodgers Forge. "We're not going to be around forever. I'm one of the young ones, and I'm 82, so that tells you."

Like Arnold and Nichols, many local Rosies worked at the Martin Co. in Middle River, which was at the forefront of the national trend of using women to fill vacant industrial positions when it hired 19 women in 1941 to work on its factory floor, said Debi Wynn, director of education at the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum in Middle River.

The company's president, Glenn L. Martin, was encouraged by the idea that women had the dexterity to work with intricately designed wiring and were small enough to get into tough-to-reach parts of the planes, Wynn said

According to Harvey Hodgin, 94, who worked in plant personnel at the company during the early 1940s, the introduction of women into the work force went smoothly.

"I welcomed every one of them," said Hodgin, who now sits on the board of directors of the aviation museum, which the convention attendees will visit tomorrow. "It was a good, cooperative function."

Although the manual labor was difficult, many of the women who worked at the company look back at their time there fondly, they said.

"It was a very important time in my life," Nichols said. "The only thing that I and all of the rest of us were concerned about was winning the war, because we knew if we did not win that war, nothing else would matter."

Nichols was recruited by the company out of Glen Burnie High School in 1943 at the age of 17 for her academic skills, and after a brief training period worked in the engineering department as a draftsman charged with editing drawings and blueprints used by the riveters and welders. She said she "didn't think anything of being a woman doing a man's work," and that it "was just a job that had to be done."

As soon as the war ended, Nichols resigned from her job and enrolled at the University of Maryland at the age of 19.

Julia Yoder, 84, of Finksburg, started working at the Martin plant in 1941 soldering wires into junction boxes. She said she "felt a calling" to work at the company, and saw her taking a job there as "letting a man go into the service." It also paid well, and although it was a rough job, she said, it was worth it.

"It all made me a better person and appreciate what I have today," she said.

kevin.rector@baltsun.com

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