In World War II, women were called upon to work outside of the home to keep the economy going after millions of American men shipped off to war. The government led a campaign featuring women working industrial jobs, and the culturally iconic ‘Rose the Riveter’ was born. More than 6 million women entered the workforce to replace enlisted American soldiers. In the span of just five years (1940 to 1945) the number of women in the workforce increased from 27% to 37%.
Although there was a demand for more workers, due to segregation and racial discrimination, the call didn’t immediately resonate with black citizens. One former riveter named Betty Reid Soskin recalls the order in which black women were allowed into the wartime workplace:
…workers were in demand, but there was a hierarchy Soskin says. First hired at the Richmond shipyards were men who were too old to fight and boys who were too young to go, then single white women, then married white women…then black men to support the Rosies – do the heavy lifting. Eventually black women, but that wasn’t until 1944. Though there were some exceptions.
Up until 1944, black women were limited to janitorial or cafeteria jobs. Due to the increase in demand for workers, roles in production were now available to black women. Under pressure from the federal government, the Packard Motor Company attempted to integrate their work force. However, they were met with staged strikes from the white employees. When Packard Motor Company promoted three black men to the aircraft assembly line, 25,000 white workers walked out on a wildcat strike. Similarly, when three black women were promoted to work with the drill press, white women went on strike and vowed not to return until the women had been demoted.
Though they were met with much adversity, 600,000 black women served in the labor force during this time.
But even after being admitted into the workplace, blacks workers were excluded from unions such as the Boilermaker Union. This led to the establishment of auxiliary union, Local A‑36, which helped to ensure higher wages for black workers.
Did you know there were black riveters?