Women in War Industries

By Emily Newell Blair
[NOVEMBER, 1918]

[The New York Times/Current History, January 1919]

The close of the war finds women employed in practically every industry. In agriculture they do everything, from raising bees to testing milk, not omitting the harvesting of crops. In construction and building trades they are employed in shipyards and airplane factories, and are qualified as skilled riveters, caulkers, chippers, reamers and carpenters, electricians, painters, pipe fitters, plumbers, roofers, sheet metal and brickyard workers. There are woodswomen as well. There are women log inspectors and women miners. In munition and other industries incident to the war they follow such tasks as burring, tracing, chopping, assembling meters and coils, drafting, molding, cylindrical grinding, copper tipping, power dispatching, repairing and testing valves, straightening razor parts, diamond die drilling, machine burnishing, and wire bending. In the work of transportation they are taking their places as ticket agents at railroad stations and acting as street-car conductors and motormen, teamsters, chauffeurs, auto truck, taxi and ambulance drivers.

In view of this influx of women into branches of industry hitherto closed to them, a general and desirable curiosity is manifested as to the actual degree to which women have replaced men, how they are trained to fill these positions, the effect on industrial production, and the means taken to protect the health of women and standards of industry.

Although figures on the employment of American women since the beginning of the world war and since our entry into the war must necessarily be suggestive rather than authoritative, several surveys, taken under conditions making for accuracy, indicate the trend of the women-in-industry movement. In 1910 the number of women engaged in gainful occupations, according to the United States census, was 8,750,772. Today, according to the estimates compiled by the American Association for Labor Legislation, approximately 11,000,000 women are so engaged. These figures include clerks, stenographers, and professional women, as well as the skilled and unskilled workers. A survey made in 1914 authorized by the National Industrial Conference Board gives 1,649,687 women workers engaged in manufacturing industries alone. An investigation conducted by Marie Obernauer, now Chief of Examiners for the War Labor Board, and published by the Committee on Public Information in April, 1918, gives the size of the "Woman's Industrial Army of Defense," as she calls it, as 1,500,000. More recent figures, compiled from other sources, place the number of women employed in essential industries as 2,000,000.

Except in such cases as those in which industries have supplied the needs of soldiers instead of civilians, the Government instead of individuals, these workers must either have been transferred from the nonessential industries to the essential or recruited from the untrained women of the hitherto unproductive class.


As the demand in the early days of the war was for trained women, naturally the larger number of women were found in those industries which had already employed them. According to Miss Obernauer's report, 900,000 women were engaged in five industries supplying the Government. Of this number, 80,000 were in canneries; 125,000 in the food, spice, condiment, drug and tobacco factories; 275,000 in textile occupations, 212,000 running machines in clothing factories, 130,000 in knitting and hosiery mills; 95,000 were shoe workers. In many cases these factories had merely changed their markets. Neither their output nor their number of employes had increased. But the report further calls attention to the fact that it takes 300,000,000 yards of cloth to clothe, bed, and shelter an army of a million and a half in the field, that a million and a half men at the front require 15,000,000 knit undershirts, nearly 20,000,000 pairs of underdrawers, and 27,000,000 pairs of socks during the year; that the War Department had placed orders for 21,000,000 pairs of shoes to be delivered by June 1, 1918. It is fairly evident that to meet these demands there had to be an increased output and calls for more workers. This conclusion is further supported by Miss Obernauer's statement:

Within a few months after Congress declared the existence of a state of war, calls for nearly 10,000 factory and mill trained women were made. The most insistent calls, and those hardest to fill, were not for women to make bandages and bullets, but to do woman's world-old job, to spin, to weave, to knit, to sew, and to conserve food not in the old-time kitchen fashion, which produces in dozens, but in the new factory and mill way, under which the productive power of women labor is raised a hundred and a thousand fold.

In some cases it was necessary to bring the utterly unskilled into these trades. For instance, in the little town of Manchester, N. H., where war orders for shoes and leggings placed a problem before the McElwain Shoe Company, which would have created a serious housing problem if workers had been brought in large numbers from other communities, a special publicity campaign was organized by the United States Employment Office, urging women of the community to enter the factory as a patriotic duty. Many college women and others who had not previously been employed were induced to take up this work. So far as reports have been received, they have proved satisfactory.


Miss Obernauer's report, while emphasizing the importance of woman's world-old work, notes the readiness with which women went into munition factories. She lists 600,000 women as furnishing the scores of things that come under the category of equipment; 100,000 in establishments not recognized as munition plants, yet doing work essential to the waging of the war, such as the making of bolts and screws to be used on ships, wireless and other electrical appliances, spark plugs and parts of airplanes, submarines and army trucks; and 100,000 in private munition plants and Government-owned arsenals.

This readiness, she thinks, was not only the result of the higher wages paid in these new establishments, but was part of the war psychology of the women public, which fails to appreciate its own singular importance and consequent responsibility in the winning of the war by work on essential industries other than munition making. It may be, however, that this attitude is due partly to the fact that, except in cases of munition workers, there has been no credit, no glory, not even relief from monotony in the work of these war industries. The report says:

To the work of other women the war has at least lent the attraction of newness and variety. For the factory and mill trained women in the older industries the war has only intensified the monotony of repetition work. It has meant less cloth of variegated colors and textures for a heterogeneous civilian market and enormously more of uniform color and texture for the army and navy. It has meant fewer metal novelties and more standardized parts for the instruments of war. But the drill in monotony which has been the portion of these women in peace time has seasoned them for the more intensified monotony of wartime work.

The desirability of transferring women from nonessential to essential industries was at first strongly urged. Just one instance will suffice to note the nature of those transfers, which reports to the United States Employment Service indicate have been very large, particularly since the War Industries Board and the War Trade Board have been actively controlling the supply of raw materials, domestic and imported, of all manufacturers. The Government's gas-mask factory in Long Island City secured through the United States Employment Service of New York a corps of 1,000 skilled power-machine operators who had formerly been employed in the manufacture of collars and corsets to stitch their gas masks.


To the end, presumably, that information as to the need for such transfer, also for substitution, might be available, in January of 1918 the United States Employment Service published a report of a survey of industries engaged in war work, made to ascertain facts about the labor supply. The survey was made of war industries in forty-four cities in New York State and formed a basis of judging labor conditions in the manufacturing centres.

The 500 factories which were visited in the course of the survey employed 216,117 persons. About 176 of these factories called for additional labor before June, 1918. Woman labor was requested in only a little more than one-tenth of the total number. The women workers required were only 300. They were confined practically to , the industries engaged in the manufacture of instruments and tools, and in many cases the manufacturers asked for "either men or women." It is notable in this connection that one firm which was investigated, although on its schedule it made no request for women to take the place of men, had already substituted 400 women and acknowledged its intention of substituting many more. Its action called forth vigorous protests from organized labor because it was said that lower wages were being paid to women in this plant than to men. The report continues: "It should be pointed out here that until steps have been taken to use all available skilled male labor in war industries there can be no intelligent control of women in industry."

Other reports, issued by the Merchants Association of New York in November, 1917, and by the National Association of Corporation Schools, Bulletin of October, 1917, and a compilation made by the New York State Industrial Commission on the basis of answers to a questionnaire sent in August, 1917, to 1,600 employers of labor in the State, show a relatively small number of women substituted for men. At the same time, the proportionate increase in employment of women appears to have been particularly marked in the war industries, especially in the metal and machine trades.

During April and May, 1918, an investigation of 600 selected establishments where it seemed probable that women might be employed on metal manufacturing processes was made by the National Industrial Conference Board, representing seventeen large manufacturing associations in the United States. The results of this inquiry were published in July, 1918, in a report entitled "War Time Employment of Women in the Metal Trades." This is apparently the latest report on women in industry to be made on anything like a large scale from direct investigation. A compilation made by this board from the abstract of the census of manufacturers of 1914 shows that women comprise only 4.6 per cent, of the total labor force in those metal trades in which they were employed, or 98,112 from a total of 2,140,789 employes. For ninety-six establishments which furnished the board definite figures on the substituting of women employes since August, 1914, the women substituted were 10,801 out of a total of 34,667 female employes, or 31.2 per cent; 5,107, or nearly 50 per cent, have been added or substituted in ten munition establishments. Of the 330 manufacturers replying to the questionnaire, only 131 employed female labor in manufacturing processes. Out of a total labor force of 384,709, in these 131 establishments, 49,831 were women, making the proportion of women 12.9 per cent.


As the Government continued to induct men into military service, the demand for women workers necessarily increased. With this increased demand came increased interest in the problem of giving training to those women who were unskilled. The position of the Section on Industrial Training for War Emergency was that women should not do heavy manual labor or enter men's trades, except as necessary for the prosecution of the war; but when women had to do so in order to make up our industrial quota they must receive training. This section of the Committee on Labor, Council of National Defense, was ultimately merged in the Training and Dilution Service of the Department of Labor.

The Federal Board for Vocational Education was also concerned with promoting industrial training, and disbursed a considerable sum upon a half-and-half plan for salaries of vocational instructors employed by the States. This board in August, 1918, emphasized the need of training for the following classes of women:

Those who have not hitherto been employed and have entered industry because of economic pressure or a desire for patriotic service; those who have been partially or casually employed and desire permanent employment; those who seek in the diverse opportunities at present offered a change from congenial employment to desirable work.

The board described the training that had been instituted to meet the needs of these classes of workers to meet the war emergency. Experiments were made in industrial plants in connection with their employment departments. Private schools and other institutions were stimulated to inaugurate new classes. Public schools in many cases adopted day, part-time, and evening classes to meet these new needs.


But in most cases this problem of training women for industrial service has been handled by individual employers. At the present time the consensus of opinion among them seems to favor the "Vestibule Schools " as the method giving the quickest result in training unskilled workers. The vestibule school is so named because it is actually the entrance to the factory. Many plants are willing to employ unskilled women to operate machines under instructional supervision. These machines are duplicates of those used in the main factory, and the finished product of the vestibule school goes, after inspection, into the same channels as the factory product. As soon as the worker has shown ability to work without instruction, she is given regular employment. In some cases production from the vestibule schools equals the records set by the regular workers. The apprentice workers are paid a stipulated rate while learning, and when promoted to regular work they are advanced to pay by the hour or piece according to custom of that particular factory. In the Curtiss airplane plant at Buffalo, F. L. Glynn, who was formerly State Director of Vocational Education in Wisconsin, is, with assistants, in charge of a vestibule school occupying a balcony 50 by 600 feet, running down the centre of a great shop.

Ninety-seven industrial plants engaged in war orders introduced the vestibule school and were listed by the Training and Dilution Service. The form of training even under this system varies. The Bethlehem Steel Company has two different types of schools for women workers in operation. School No. 1 is in a separate building equipped with the necessary machines and tools. The new workers are here assigned to skilled mechanics as instructors, who teach the proper method of doing bench work and of operating any of the following types of machines: Drill presses, gun boring lathes, turret lathes, shapers, milling machines. As soon as they develop a certain degree of skill in the training school they are placed in the production shops. All these women learners have been paid at the rate of 25 cents an hour while in training. This was increased to 29 cents as soon as they could handle production work. The nature of the work in these shops made it necessary for workers to become all-around operators or bench hands that is, they had to be given a broad training, including blueprint reading and the use of precision-measuring instruments.

Still another type of school is maintained by the Packard Company, which employs 1,000 women in its plant in operations requiring varying degrees of intelligence and skill, the lowest wage being 35 cents an hour for greasers and packers. A miniature factory, in which the learners are segregated from the experienced workers, is equipped for a school. The teachers are chosen from the regular workers, and instruct about 200 women at a time. The newcomer is set to work upon series of exercises which are based upon the requirements of production work. With the help of eight blueprints and the materials which accompany them, the learners become sufficiently familiar with the terms and tools and simple processes to understand the language of the instructor when he teaches the machine. When she passes on to the machine she may choose the special kind on which she prefers training the lathe, the turret lathe, milling machine, planer, shaper, or the drill. She may become more or less familiar with several. She must also become experienced in inspecting and assembling parts, and altogether spends three weeks before being sent into the plant.


As to efficiency maintained by women workers, the report of the National Industrial Conference Board referred to before includes a comparison of output which indicates that the output of women compares favorably with that of men. It appears that in 30 establishments out of 99 the output of women is greater than that of men in all operations in which both were engaged; in 6 it was greater in some, equal in others; in 30 it was equal to that of men.

In other words, in 66 establishments, or two-thirds of those furnishing definite information as to output, women's production was equal to or greater than that of men in the operations where both were employed. In only 15 establishments was it found that women produced less than men in all operations in which they were engaged. In the remaining 18 establishments, although less on some operations, their production was equal or greater on others. Further investigation discloses the fact that among those operations in which some employers reported women to be less efficient than men, there were very few which were not being carried on with much success by women in other establishments. For instance, in one automobile factory women were found inferior to men in light bench and machine work, yet in other factories doing similar work their output on the same processes was equal to or greater than that of the men.

As to the attitude of women, of 111 manufacturing establishments reporting on this subject 103 stated that the attitude of women toward their work was as good or better than that of men; 8 that it was worse. It should be taken into consideration that most of the factory work which women perform requires little initiative or self-reliance.

Comparisons of the wage rate of women with those of men is complicated by the fact that operations done by women have been modified, sometimes so that the work done is not identical with that done before by men, and that one class of workers might be paid by piece rate, others on time work. Excluding the 21 establishments for which there was no basis for comparison, in the 53 of the remaining 106 women received the same rates of pay as men, whether on time or on piece work; in 29, women's piece work was the same as men's, but their time rates were lower. In 24 both piece and time rates were lower.

The principle of equal wages for equal work found specially marked recognition among employers in those industries where the employment is a comparatively new feature. For example, eighteen establishments manufacturing foundry and machine shop products pay women equal rates where they do the same work as men, while eight pay them equal piece rates. In the munition industry five establishments pay equal rates, six pay equal piece rates but lower time rates. The relatively large number of cases where women receive lower rates in electrical manufacturing is due to the fact that women have been employed in this industry for a much longer period, and that certain occupations came to be regarded as women's work at a time when the principle of equal wages was seldom accepted.

A considerable number of employers…indicated no changes in equipment following the introduction of women workers, or changes only in the direction of increasing the safety provisions…. In several cases where increased war demands led to the employment of women on a considerable scale that additional equipment was chosen with the idea of its adaptability to female workers…. That is, making the machinery easier to operate, arranging for delivering materials, furnishing specially designed tools, providing well-lighted workrooms, and proper seating arrangement, which applies to the men as well as the women, these tend to reduce fatigue and increase efficiency.


It was reported that in a majority of cases the accident rate was lower for women than for men, but no accurate figures or even estimates were given. Many manufacturers attributed this to the fact that women were engaged in work of a less hazardous character than were the men. A Government report, based on an investigation in 1908, showed the number of accidents to women at that time about one-third greater than to men. A significant feature of this tabulation was "that, of the accidents to women, practically 60 per cent, occurred during the first week of employment and over 30 per cent on the first day of employment, as compared with approximately 35 per cent and 19 per cent, respectively in the case of men. The latter figures indicate clearly that the learning period is peculiarly dangerous for women workers and emphasizes the desirability of a thorough training, which appears to be more necessary for women than for men, as many women have little or no previous mechanical experience."

In order that the health of women should be conserved and the proper protection thrown around them, early in the war the Ordnance Department established in its Industrial Service Section a woman's division, which has a supervisor in each ordnance district. It is her duty to co-operate with other officials of the Ordnance Department in keeping production at the top notch of efficiency by the upkeep of proper working standards among women employes and at the same time to see that the women are properly safeguarded. As an additional protection to the health of the workers special attention has been given to the training and recruiting of women health supervisors to be situated in Government-owned plants.

Since then the Department of Labor has created a Women in Industry Service to exercise the same function with regard to all women in industries controlled directly or having contracts with the Federal Government. These standards are set forth briefly in a resolution that recommends the standards as to hours, night work, wages, and conditions of labor, previously set forth by the Government in such orders as No. 13, issued by General Crozier. Order No. 13, addressed to arsenal commanders and manufacturers, suggests that efforts be made to restrict the work of women to eight hours even where the law permits a nine or ten hour day, asks that the employment of women on night shifts should be avoided, that rest periods every four and a half hours be arranged, that at least thirty minutes for meals, which are not to be eaten in workrooms, be allowed; that a Saturday half holiday be given, and that no woman be required to lift repeatedly more than 25 pounds in any single load. While it states that care should be taken to make sure that, when it becomes necessary to employ women on work hitherto done by men, the task be adapted to the strength of women, it strongly advocates equal wages for equal service.


This resolution of the War Labor Policies Board further sets forth its opinion that the shortage in labor should be met in part by introducing women into those occupations easily filled by them, and that they should not be employed in places or occupations clearly unfit for them, either because of physical or moral conditions or youth. The placing of women in hazardous employments and new occupations is to be regulated by standards especially applicable to these occupations, as set forth, from time to time, either by the Federal Government or by the State Labor Departments. The recruiting of mothers of young children for war industries is to be discouraged.

While the movement of women into industry must naturally create special problems, these same problems are themselves factors in the problems created by the conditions and necessities of industry itself. The introduction to the first orders issued officially as standards of industry may be quoted as indicating the Government's point of view: "In view of the urgent necessity for a prompt increase in the volume of production of practically every article required for the conduct of the war, vigilance is demanded of all those in any way associated with industry, lest the safeguards with which people of this country have sought to protect labor should be unwisely and unnecessarily broken down."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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