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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Ladies Who Were W.O.W.s - Springfield Armory, Massachusetts

U.S. War Dept. photo, public domain

During World War II,  the Springfield Armory’s 50,000 employees worked around the clock producing 5,000 rifles per day.  At one point, 5,210 of the workers, 42.5% of the total Armory workforce were women.  They were called WOWs—Women Ordnance Workers.

When the men went to war, the women went to work, and several manufactures throughout the country hired women to replace the male workers gone into military service.  New England, a strong manufacturing base, already had a long history of hiring women for the textile mills of the 19th Century (See this previous post on mill girls), and now saw thousands of women in war plants and shipyards.  For many young wives of the World War II era, this was an opportunity to participate in the war effort and to earn a little extra income.  For many single girls, the war industries gave them their first jobs.  For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, there was plenty of work, and the pay was unlike anything they had ever earned.

There were only about 618 women working at the Springfield Armory before the war.  The making of small arms was the principal production.  The men those ladies were hired to replace during the war were skilled workers, many with years of experience on their jobs.  The shift over to a fair-sized force of new, inexperienced workers was not always a smooth one.  Adjustments had to be made in worker protocol, in safety measures, and in the very method of production. 

In peacetime, a man might spend four years in apprenticeship on his complicated machine; each operator was responsible for the setup and complete care of his machine.  In wartime, urgency required a streamlined operation.  The women operated machines while their male co-workers with the necessary experience would set up, repair and service the machines, as well as deliver heavy materials around the shop. 

Some adjustments were made in the shop to accommodate the ladies because new workers were very much needed.  Just as all those old wartime posters declared: swift and constant production was the key to victory.  The government set guidelines for manufacturers on dealing with the brand-new female workforce.  Separate adequate restrooms was an obvious first measure.  Chairs and stools at the machines were advised to cut fatigue, and special jobs were made available in the war industries to suit handicaps or with medical conditions such as heart trouble.  On-site cafeterias with hot meals saved time and energy, enabling the workers to avoid going out for lunch.  The Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor advised an absence for pregnant women of six weeks before she delivered her child and two months after the child was born.  Some manufacturers preferred to fire pregnant women.  Many manufacturers including the Springfield Armory, at first were slack on Labor’s “equal pay for equal work,” but later the Armory revised pay rates to be based on the job performed and not on the sex of the employee.

Other recommendations many factories strictly enforced included banning the wearing of high heels, and encouraging the use of bandanas, hairnets or caps to protect the women’s hair from getting caught in the machines.  There had actually been some severe accidents, scalping really, and many women ultimately chose to emulate Hollywood star Veronica Lake, who cut her “peek-a-boo” over-the-eye blonde hair as a patriotic example to lady war workers. 
Wearing jewelry on the job was a hazard, and also a point of controversy, as newly married girls refused to take off their wedding rings.

Turnover at the Springfield armory was due mainly to exhaustion.  They worked fourteen days sometimes before getting a day off.  The Armory workers received one Sunday off a month.
The high turnover as well the absence of more senior male workers away in the war sometimes pushed women employees into higher positions, such as that of gang boss or even foreman.  In September of 1943, the Armory devised a special course for its foremen on the assembly and disassembly of their main product—the M1 Rifle.  The course was twenty hours, one hour a week set aside for the instruction.

Another factor to be considered in women’s participation in war industry was childcare.  The Works Progress Administration (WPA) supported free nurseries in the early years of the war, and when it was disbanded, individual communities later organized day care for the youngsters of their war workers.  Many Armory workers left their children ages two-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years of age across the street at the High School of Commerce, one of the many sites in the Springfield Day Centers for Child Care system.  Three dollars a week was charged for the nursery school, $1.50 for weekly care, and 15 cents daily for lunch.  Some of the high school’s home economics students participated in the nursery.

With all the difficulties facing the ladies entering this high-pressure, highly technical field of ordnance manufacturing, nevertheless, the ladies of the Armory, or WOWs – Women Ordnance Workers—were a vital and reliable source of “manpower” during a period of our history when many hands were needed. 

The ladies wore blue overalls, blue caps a mesh net for their hair.  To obtain these jobs they had to pass a civil service test, were examined by physicians, and submit to fingerprinting.  They earned an average of $125 a week, a marvelous sum for which they put up with long hours and an occasional blackout if they were on the “swing shift.” 

Sometimes, over the noise of their machines, they could hear the planes taking off from nearby Westover Field in Chicopee.  Even on the home front, the war was never really that far away.

For more on the Springfield Armory, have a look at this website.

And have a look here for the summer concert series at the Armory, including a World War II-era swing music night.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in Chickuppy & Friends Magazine, August 1986.

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