When the United States was drawn into World War II by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation’s workforce suddenly shifted. Millions of men were enlisted in the military, but the United States Government still needed to ramp up production of equipment to adequately supply the troops.
Appeals went out to women during the war to take over what were typically considered "grittier" male jobs, such as welding and other craft positions. Many women answered the call, and changed the dynamic of how women contributed during the war.
Production Urgency Re-Defines How Genders and Races Were Perceived
The Marinship Yard just outside of San Francisco became one of the locations where women were able to work during the war. The 210-acre shipyard was an around the clock giant assembly line filled with ship parts, open skids, and huge traveling cranes turning 108 separate units into a massive tanker or oiler.
The breakthrough for women craftworkers at Marinship began in 1942 when Marinship hired Dorothy Gimblett, a mother of three, as a welder. Her appearance in heavy welder’s leathers was a major event and encouraged more women to join the workforce.
As described by historian Charles Wollenberg, Marinship and other Maritime commission yards became “gigantic experiments in industrial education.” Marinship quickly set up training programs in welding and other shipyard crafts at local vocational schools, high school and community colleges.
Women of all ethnicities worked together on the Marinship project. Whites, Asians, Latinas and African-Americans worked side by side mostly as welders. As the war continued, the need for women shipbuilders was so great that companies began to test women in a wide variety of production jobs and it was found that they could perform not only competently, but many women performed better than men in the same job.
One Marinship woman observed that the experience “…made women confident. It has given us a sense of self-security…Because I have been able to engage in war work, I’ll never again feel helpless.”
By 1943, 65% of all shipyard workers on the West Coast were female.