Friday, November 29, 2013

Women in the Workplace: It was Maytag that took Rosie the Riveter out of the domestic arena, not World War Two

A virtual icon of the liberated strong woman, Rosie the Riveter proclaimed "we can do it" to the nation and became a symbol of the working woman.  In reality, most Rosie's put the riveter down and actually did return to their prewar lives.  This image pales in comparison to Rockwell's stunning original version.

In the popular imagination, it was World War Two that took women out of the homes, and into careers.  Removed from the domestic scene for the first time by the necessity of the workplace in the greatest war in human history, the story goes, women realized that they could do a man's job and refused to return to their domestic roles.  It's a nice simple story.

It also just isn't true.

 General motors worker, World War Two.

It wasn't beating the Axis that changed the domestic scene, it was the conquering of domestic chores by machines that changed things, and not all that rapidly at that.  Indeed, women didn't even experience the workplace in large numbers for their first time in World War Two.  They'd already been there during World War One.

Riveting is hard, dangerous work.  But dragging a plow in the absence of draft animals, is hard, dangerous, brutal work.  This World War One poster isn't a flight of fancy, it's actually an illustration of an actual photograph of three French farm women dragging an implement as they no longer have any draft animals on their farms, and they no longer have their husbands their to help.

It is, as is well known, very true that women picked up the laboring oar in the Allied countries, by choice and by necessity, during World War Two.  But they also had during World War One.  It was women who loaded the explosives in artillery shells in the Great War, at a time when that had not yet been automated.  The men who would have done it were largely in the service, and their smaller hands made it an easier thing for them to do. And women filled scores of other industrial roles as well.

 Women war workers in dormitory, 1917.

And they filled farming roles at a level which was not approached again, ever.  So many women were needed for agricultural roles that Canadian women were recruited to work as timber cruisers in Scotland.  Women plowed the fields and did the sowing in France, England and Germany.  And they also were pressed into that role in the US and Canada, although in smaller, but not insignificant, numbers.

Recruiting poster for the Women's Land Army.
 The YMCA also recruited for young women to work as farmers during World War One.

Indeed, in some warring nations the role of women was more significant in World War One, than it was in World War Two.  Women worked in every warring nation in both wars, in what had been men's roles, but the need for female heavy labor was greater in France and the UK in the Great War than it was in World War Two.  During World War Two, because of German occupation, French women did not find employment much outside their traditional roles, while in World War One they had been employed in heavy labor.  World War Two was a horrific nightmare for the UK, but it actually required less manpower than did the Great War, which was a British bloodbath.  Women were largely not employed in Germany, due to some strange Nazi revulsion against doing so, and a view of women that was rather creepy. 

And women entered military service for the first time in World War One, not World War Two. The U.S. Navy recruited "Yoemanettes," prior to WWII's "WAVES."  The British and Commonwealth forces used large numbers of female nurses, including tow of my mother's aunts, who traveled from Canada to France for the war.  British and Australian horsewomen broke horses for their respective armies.  Russian women found a place as theoretical combat troops for the first time in World War One, not World War Two, when the Imperial Russian Army rose a Women's Battalion of Death (it didn't see action).

So what changed?

Well, in one sense, not much. The concept that World War Two's working women stayed in the workplace is grossly exaggerated.  For the most part, they didn't.  Most in fact left their wartime employment and returned to domestic lives they'd hoped for, or at least expected, prior to the war.  Indeed, a lot of occupations did not open up for women for decades.  Lawyers I know, for example, who went to law school right after World War Two have related to me that it was extremely difficult for a woman to get through the schools as they were harassed, in part, by male professors (and students) who didn't feel they belonged there.  I know one woman who did go through law school in the 1940s, and was a highly respected lawyer, but she's an example of one. For the most part, women's occupations weren't a lot wider in variety after the war than they were before. A big exception was the role of secretary, which had become an exclusively female role by the 1940s, but then it was very much well on the way to that prior to World War Two.  And that role is telling as to the reason.  The reason women replaced men as secretaries (which was controversial at first) was due to a machine. . . the typewriter.

Manual typewriters, 1940s.

It was machines that changed the relationship of people to work, and by extension it was women who were most impacted.  For women, the machines that would have the greatest impact in their relationship to work were domestic machines.

Electric washing machine, with hand wringer, 1940s.

We've blogged about it here before, but it wasn't just women who had a different relationship with domestic chores.  Indeed, this is so much the case, that it's hard to appreciate it now. This impacted what men and women did, and had to do, on daily basis.

Most modern domestic machines are post World War Two inventions, or post War War Two perfections.  Consider, therefore what average conditions were like prior to the modern era.

There are certain things that everyone has to handle, in one way or another, every day.  We all need to eat, we all need to acquire food to eat, and we all need keep ourselves and our clothing decent in some fashion.  Seems simple enough, doesn't it. And, for us now, it really is.

For most of us, today, we can easily keep several days food in a refrigerator.  We can easily cook that food with a gas or electric, or microwave, stove everyday.  Most of us have clothing that is easily washable as well.  No big deal.  And when we go to clean our living quarters, that doesn't create much of a problem either.

Well, consider now the situation prior to World War One.  That's now a century ago, but it's part of our modern era.  Quite recognizable to most of us, and when presented in film seemingly a dressier, if somewhat different, version of our current era.

But in that recognizable era there was no domestic refrigeration.  People did preserve food in the house, but via an "ice box."  Indeed, my father had grown so accustomed to this term when he was young that he always called the refrigerator the "ice box" even though he'd probably not lived in a house that had one since he was a small child.  

Woman pouring mild for her son, kept cold in a trailer equipped with an ice box. This is a WWII vintage photo of a Defense War Worker trailer. The really telling thing depicted by this photo isn't the ice box, which was an old technology, but that the woman is dressed in shorts, which reflected a very recent change.  She could appear as modern in nearly every home today, which her World War One counterpart would not.

Folks who cooled food with an ice box, acquired food everyday. If you wanted fresh food, you bought it that day.  Many women went to the market for fresh meat everyday.  There was little choice but to do that.  And ice was delivered periodically also, by a horse drawn wagon.  Both of my parents had recollections of the ice wagon.

Cooking the food was a long precess also. Nothing existed that was already prepared.  People didn't have frozen food to prepare. Canned food, of course, did already exist.  But by and large people had to prepare everything that day, whatever meal was being considered.  And part of that was due to the fact that modern stoves were only coming in during this period.

Today we have gas and electric stoves everywhere. But up to at least 1920, most people had wood or coal burning stoves for cooking.  They didn't heat the same way.  Cooking with a wood stove is slow.  It takes hours to cook anything with a wood stove, and those who typically cooked with them didn't cook with the same variety, or methods, we do now.  Boiling, the fastest method of food preparation, was popular.  People boiled everything.  Where we'd now roast a roast in the oven, a cook of that era would just as frequently boil it.  People boiled vegetables into oblivion.  My mother, who had learned to cook from her mother, who had learned how to cook in this era, used the boiling into oblivion method of cooking. She hated potatoes for this reason (I love them) but she'd invariable boil them into unrecognizable starch lumps.

Wood burning stove in Denver.  Typical pre 1920 stove.  Heck, typical pre 1930 stove.  Heck, typical pre 1940 stove.

Turn of century advertisement for stove polish.  Cleaning a wood burning stove would be no treat.

Even something as mundane as toast required more effort than it does not.  Toasters are an electric appliance that most homes have now, but they actually replaced a simple device.

 World War Two era propaganda photograph, trying to depict an inattentive woman letting toast burn, and therefore wasting resources.  Note how complicated this electric toaster is.

You'll still occasionally see old fashioned toasters in sheep and cattle camps, and probably elsewhere. They just hold the bread so that the toast can be toasted over a burner.  Pretty simple, and not much of a labor saving device, right? Well, consider the totality of it.  To toast you had to watch the toast, rather than just slip the bread down into the toaster.

For that matter, everything was relatively labor intensive save for boiling and roasting, which is probably why things tended to be boiled or roasted.

 Man cooking in a cow camp for cowboys.  He's using two cast iron dutch ovens (I still use one routinely) to cook over a fire.  This photo first appeared on this blog in 2009 in a very early entry on cooking changes.

Indeed, if you think of all the electric devices in your kitchen today, it's stunning.  Electric or gas stoves, electric blenders and mixers, microwaves, refrigerators.  Go back just a century and none of this would be in the average home.  And with the exception of canned goods, which dated back well into the 19th Century, nothing came in the form of prepared food either.  For that matter, even packaging was different at that time.  If you wanted steak for five, you went to the butcher, probably that day, and got steak for five.  If you wanted ground beef, you went to the butcher and got the quantity you wanted, and so on.

And such innovations weren't limited to kitchen and the laundry room but other devices entered the house that saved domestic labor in all sorts of ways.  For example, the vacuum cleaner came in.

Woman in Montana vacuuming in her home, about 1940.  Of note, the book case on the right is a barristers case, something normally associated with lawyers.  She's vacuuming a large rug on a wooden floor.

It might be easy to scoff at that, but it shouldn't be.  Homes built before the vacuum cleaner generally didn't have wall to wall carpeting, and for good reason, but people did have large area carpets in them, like the one if the photo above.  And they were cleaned by beating them.  For those with large area rugs, of course, that's still done today after a while, as they can't really be adequately cleaned simply by vacuuming, but you don't have to do it as often.

To beat a rug, what you do is roll it up and cart it out to the clothes line, a feature in the yard that's actually prohibited in many subdivisions today, and you whack it repeatedly until the dust quits flying out of it.  It's a two person job for a heavy rug.  

Of course, as noted, wall to wall carpeting was not the norm, as cleaning wouldn't allow for it, nearly anywhere.  What that meant is that people had to take on the rest of the cleaning of the floor by some other method.  The other flooring surfaces were wood and tile, with both being in most houses to some extent.  Tiles were cleaned as they still are, with mop, scrub brush, and sponge.  Wooden floors, however, were polished.  Floor wax is something most of us don't think about today, but they did then.  A wooden floor was damp mopped occasionally and then polished with floor wax.  In larger commercial buildings there came to be a machine for this, and there still is.  A floor polisher is a large machine with a circular disk that will do this. At Ft. Sill, where I went to Basic Training, we polished the floor every Sunday.  My father had a floor polisher for his office, so I knew how to operate that before I went to Basic.  Now, most folks don't have floor polishers.

Although, I'll  note as an aside, tile and wood floors have come roaring back into the use. They were always pretty, but when the machines came in, people went berserk with carpeting. All carpeting wears and becomes dirty, but people carpeted everything, including having carpet laid over the top of beautiful wood and tile floors.  By the 1970s carpet became shaggy, the way that the eras teenagers did, and sometimes came in hideous loud colors.  On odd occasion, if you can find an office or home that's never been updated, you can see the special in all of its bizarre glory.

Okay, so we now have a lot of appliances of all sorts. So what?  How can that support the thesis stated above.  Well, consider how things worked prior to these things started to really come in during the 1920s.

Let's start with a farm example. The US was much more rural a century ago than it is now, and many more men and women lived on them than do now.  Indeed, a fairly high percentage of the country did.  And lets take the example of a labor intensive time of the year, say harvesting.

Some years ago I saw a documentary which interviewed old men who had been boys in Wisconsin during the waning days of big horse farming.  One of them described very well how this worked, and serves as an excellent example.  Harvesting was communal in nature, just like branding remains here today.  So a collection of farmers worked on each other farms to get it done. And in order to get it done, the women started the day really early, about 4:00 a.m.  They started the day that early, as they pooled their labor in order to cook a large breakfast for the collection of men who would be harvesting.  That large breakfast was necessary as they were going to expend a lot of calories that day. All that cooking was done by hand, nothing was prepared in advance as nothing could be.  They fed the men about 5:00, who then went to work in the fields.  

That didn't mean a break for the women, however.  Immediately after breakfast they started cleaning, by hand (no dishwasher) the dishes and cooking implements.  That took some time, which left just enough time to start cooking a large noon meal, which they delivered to the fields. After that, they cleaned again, which left just enough time to cook a large dinner, following which the men worked until low light shut the day down.  The women, in turn, were kept working in that task until late.  It was a long, long, day for men and women, and labor intensive all the way around.

Okay, that's a farming example, but it'd be different for folks in town, right?  Well, not really.

Elsewhere on this blog I have Henry Fairlie's excellent essay "The Cow's Revenge" up somewhere.  In that, he ably describes life of a century ago in towns and cities, for the average working man.  They average blue collar worker walked to work an average distance of seven miles.  He worked about ten hours a day, and he obviously didn't go home at noon.  To support that, once again, he ate a pretty hardy breakfast and packed a pretty hardy lunch.  Many also packed the tools of their trade with them on a daily basis. And with all labor being more intensive at the time than it is now, he ate a pretty hardy dinner to replace the calories expended during they day.

If a man is working ten hours a day, six days a week, and if the preparation of food, the washing of clothing, and even just keeping the house was a full time job, he wasn't going to be able to do it himself, or at all.  

Indeed, for most white collar workers, a much smaller percentage of the population, the same was also true, even though their working conditions were very much different.  Consider doctors or lawyers.  This was before the pay bubble, now ending, in which these professions were high paying as a rule, so offices were modest or even inside of their homes.  But they still lacked the individual ability as a rule to prepare their own meals or take care of their homes, offices, clothing etc.  

In other words, there was just too much labor to go around.

The example of single men and women at the time is telling.  Young men in this era typically did two things when they were of working age, if not married. They lived at home, if they stayed where they were from, until they were married.  If they never married, they just kept living at home.  Presently there's a bit of a supposed mini crisis of adult children returning to their parent's homes, but if that is a new trend, it's only a return to a former condition, to a degree.  These men weren't exhibiting being tied to their mother's apron strings, they were acting in accordance with reality.  By staying home and contributing to the household, the things they couldn't do were being taken care of by their mothers and probably by their sisters.

The other common male option was to live in a boarding house.  Men who did that paid for these tasks to be taken care of as part of their lodging.  We don't have boarding houses much today, but they were common right through the 1940s.  Indeed, the soldiers' song still common in the 1940s, "Hard Tack and Bully Beef" is actually simply a variant of "There Is A Boarding House."
There is a boarding house, far, far away,
Where they have ham and eggs three times a day
O how them boarders yell
When they hear the dinner bell,
They give the landlord
Three times a day.
The fact that this was used as a soldiers song based on this says something about another young man's option.  We don't think of food and lodging being an incentive to joint the service today, but it provided one in part of that bygone era.  With the age old custom of soldiers' grousing, of course, the ham and eggs becomes hardtack and bully beef, with other sarcastic comments worked in.

Young man engaging in the dangerous endeavor of cooking dinner in an apartment over a Primus gas stove. These aren't meant for indoor use at all.

Of course, some men took apartments in towns and simply ate out every day, or resorted to less than desirable means of cooking.  Even now, quite a few men engaged in heavy labor hit a working man's restaurant early in the day, and pack a lunch of some sort with them for lunch.  The point is, however, that for most working men, the conditions of the day didn't give a great number of options in terms of getting food cooked, clothing washed, etc., and still allow them to work.

That work, that is the domestic work, fell to women, but not because of some societal conspiracy thought up by men so much as by necessity.  The were some female out of the house occupations, as noted, but they were generally few, and the women who occupied them tended to be just as oppressed by the needs of every day life as men.  When you look at old advertisements that seem quaint or even a bit odd now, in which some poor young woman is depicted as being in desperate straits as she's in her late 20s and not married, it should be kept in mind that for most women getting married did indeed improve their lot in life as they'd be taking care of their own household, rather than be auxiliary to somebody else s.

It was mechanization that changed all of this. With the introduction of domestic labor saving machinery, there was time in time in the household that didn't previously exist. With the extra time, came other options of filling it, in one way or another.  And with the machinery also came the option to look at a wider range of careers if they wanted.  The implications of that were and are vast, but the cause of it seems rather widely misunderstood.

1 comment:

Sheryl said...

It's amazing how much technology has changed how people do housework over the last hundred years. For example, doing laundry was a very long complicated process years ago; now it's just a matter of putting it into the washer and then moving the clothes to the drier.