Ford Richmond Assembly Plant - Women

The increase in the percentage of workers at the Richmond plant who were women, noted above, mirrored a national trend brought about by the mobilization of the population for the war effort. In July 1944, women comprised 36.9 percent of workers in factories working under prime contracts with the government. The segment of America's total work force that was female rose from 25.8 percent before war to a high of 35.4 percent during the war. Although this new demographic of America's industrial workforce signaled a remarkable social change for the nation, it was by no means extreme in comparison with other belligerents in the war. In Britain's civilian labor force, 38 percent of workers were women at the height of the war. In the Soviet Union, women were 38 percent of the work force in 1940 and 53 percent in 1942. German women already comprised 37 percent of the civilian work force before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939; by 1944, 51 percent of German civilian workers were women.

The mobilization of workers in America's industrial plants was not as easy as simply hiring women to do jobs men had once done. Many women, especially single women and poor women, already were self-employed or had low-paying jobs in domestic service or the textile, clothing, and shoe industries before the war. Some were quick to accept higher pay in military production, but circumstances for others precluded them from taking the new employment opportunities. Women from rural areas were generally not available, because their work-loads there had already increased to make up for the men who had left farms and small-town businesses for military service. Cities with ordnance manufacturing plants could not import large numbers of women from other areas, even if available, because housing and transportation were already stretched to the limit with the influx of male industrial workers and their families. Federal manpower planners were loath to recruit married women with children, because then the government would need to develop child-care resources, a burden they hoped to avoid. They focused their attention on a demographic they labeled the "idle" reserve, who were recent high school graduates or unemployed, married women without children and already living in crowded industrial manufacturing centers. In some parts of the country, including at the Richmond Tank Depot, women who worked in ordnance plants were dubbed "WOWs," for Women Ordnance Workers.

England had already established a national system by which women were required to register for assignment to work either in manufacturing, the military, or the civilian defense. Eleanor Roosevelt had advocated such a system for mobilizing American women since 1941. Paul V. McNutt, chief of the War Manpower Commission, had initially believed there would be enough men workers available, but by autumn 1942 he, too, wanted a National Service Act that would authorize him to register men and women alike and then direct them to workplaces were they were needed.

There were difficulties in putting women to work within the existing legal framework intended to protect women. A 1939 California law prohibited employers from making women work more than eight hours per day or more than forty-eight hours per week. In February 1943, the California legislature passed the War Production Act, which authorized the governor to issue a permit to an employer that would allow that employer to have women work more hours than normally allowed under the law, if the work would further production in support of the war effort and if the work would not increase the risk of harming the health and safety of the women workers. On the other hand some of the difficulties in hiring women appeared to be imaginary. The War Manpower Commission had a program for training industrial workers for the war effort, and it routinely received requests for literature aimed specifically at training women. One of the program's managers responded:
"We have so many requests from nervous employers for special material on the training of women that I've asked my secretary to go out and buy a rubber stamp to use on every printed piece we send out, reading "this includes women, Negroes, handicapped, Chinamen, and Spaniards. The only difference between training men and women in industry is in the toilet facilities."

Such evidently was the attitude of the Ford management at the Richmond branch, which was said to have been a "house of men." Prior to the war, only three women had worked at the Richmond branch: a daytime telephone operator and two typists. The shortage of workers, however, compelled the Richmond branch to hire women, and the managers quickly learned that women could make excellent industrial workers. For some tasks (work involving small details or tedium, said to require greater patience) they even concluded that women were superior to men. It is important to note, however, that women workers at Ford did not fall into their posts merely because of the manpower shortage. They also had a strong advocate at the San Francisco Ordnance District in the person of Rowenah M. Peters, Executive Assistant to the District Chief. She had begun working for the Office of the Chief of Ordnance in Washington, DC, in 1931. Peters transferred to the San Francisco District in 1933, and by the time World War II started she had the most seniority of the district's civilian staff. She had gained a respected reputation among industrialists and military staff alike for her understanding of ordnance production and for her expertise in personnel matters, and she was said to have paid official visits to more army ordnance facilities that any other woman in the U.S. She therefore took a lead role in convincing industrialists in the jurisdiction of the San Francisco District that women should be among the new recruits as companies mobilized to meet wartime demand.

Her first such visit in autumn 1940 was to the Norris Stamping and Manufacturing Company, which had just received its second Ordnance contract under the pre-war mobilization programs. The company's president, K.T. Norris, also believed that women could make effective industrial workers, and he enthusiastically worked with Peters to move women into his production schemes. The Norris company is reported to have had one of the best records during the war of employing women toward a combination of effective production and of goodwill between workers and management. Other companies were not so receptive to the idea of employing women. The manager at Ford's Richmond plant was said to have been disdainful of the suggestion, and the manager at the Yuba Manufacturing Company in Benicia is said to have responded to Peters that he would not even consider the idea of hiring women. The Yuba company made gold dredges during peacetime, and the manager dismissed the notion that women could help turn the plant's lathes, drill-presses, and overhead cranes. Three years later, however, virtually all the ordnance producers in the San Francisco District were employing women, who had gained reputations, among other things, as skilled machine-tool and crane operators.

Women worked in all the sections at the Richmond branch during World War II. Of 332 women working there at the end of February 1945, ninety-five worked on the jeep assembly line. Curiously, two other main jeep assembly plants at Dallas and Louisville did not employ women. It was because of this distinction that jeep chassis assembly foreman Fred Willmer was said to have been especially proud that his plant routinely produced jeeps at the least cost of the three Ford plants. Tasks involved in jeep production that were filled by women included assembling and installing light switches, driving jeeps off the assembly line and taking each for a test drive, delivering jeeps to the army's Ordnance Inspectors, and draining gasoline from the tank in preparation for shipment. One of the dirtiest jobs in the plant involved dipping 25-pound sacks of parts (the heaviest load women were allowed to lift under California law) in a thick, black anti-rust fluid prior to sorting them into boxes for use by workers along the jeep assembly line. A woman named Bette Hargrave held that job in 1945. Georgette Bittich was one of the women who gave jeeps their 5-mile test drive before delivering them to the Ordnance Inspectors. The bodies of the twenty or so jeeps she tested daily were said to be still so hot from the paint-curing oven that she had to sit on a pillow to shield her from the radiant heat, which abated after about a mile on the road.

In the Tank Depot, women worked at numerous jobs, including wrapping machine gun parts for shipping. The parts were already coated with grease. A woman would grab the necessary parts and wrap them in grease-proof paper. After labeling the package, she would dip it in hot wax. When the wax cooled, she would wrap the package again in paper and label it, this time sealing the label with cellophane tape. Other women wrapped radio parts for the tanks. Some of the tank radios were manufactured to different specifications than those finally selected for particular tanks. This meant personnel at the Ford plant, often women, had to disassemble the radios and re-wire them according to the new requirements. Reportedly, women were usually selected for the radio work because it was highly repetitive and they could maintain the attentiveness necessary to achieve quality work. Other women would wrap radio parts in paper and wax, similar to the way other women wrapped gun parts, and then they placed the wrapped radio parts in wooden boxes. As a final sealant, they would paint tar along the edges of the boxes. Often women would remark that they took great care with their jobs because a vehicle they outfitted or a part they wrapped might be used by a loved one, a son, grandson, or nephew, fighting in either the European or the Pacific theatre.

As mentioned in an earlier section, the Carpentry Shop behind the Richmond plant made all the wooden crates for shipping vehicles and parts overseas. Skilled carpentry was another task that men at Ford had once thought women could not master, but in 1945 the foreman of the Carpentry Shop considered his women workers to be highly skilled and faster than the men who used to work there. He had a couple of women on his crew who were grandmothers.

Isla Buster worked in a department that packed lights and related equipment. She and her husband had moved to Richmond from Lubbock, Texas, when their son. Bob, enlisted in the Army Air Force to serve as a gunnery sergeant. She said, "Our pledge to Bob when he joined was that we would work in defense 'till he comes home, and we're going to keep it."

Another job in preparing vehicles for shipment was called "blue freeze." It derived its name from the tape, originally blue, that workers used to seal all openings on tanks and other larger vehicles that were not crated in wooden boxes. The work was conducted outdoors on the pier adjacent to the Ford plant, and many of the workers were women.

Women also worked for Ford in the Service Stock Department. Dealerships and repair shops throughout Richmond's expanded service region sent orders to the Richmond branch for parts, and workers in the Service Stock Department filled the orders. Several women were pickers and packers, meaning they picked the ordered parts off the shelves and packed them for shipment. Eva Rost was a picker who started work at Ford in July 1943. Her husband was a SeaBee in the Pacific theatre, and her two step-sons were also in the military. In early 1945 she said, "I'd rather work while they are gone, but when my husband comes home, any soldier that wants it can have this job."

Some of the women working at the Richmond Tank Depot were not Ford employees but rather worked for the army in either the Ordnance Department or the Signal Corps. The latter worked under the command of the Ordnance Department but had sole responsibility for inspecting radios and other communications equipment on the vehicles processed at the Richmond Tank Depot. The Signal Corps detachment at Richmond had one military officer, a lieutenant, and a civilian in charge. They were both men, as were the civilian technicians who worked for the Signal Corps. All of the Signal Corps inspectors were women. Women also worked as Ordnance Department inspectors. When the U.S. had entered the war. Ordnance inspectors had been men, and they were initially eligible for deferments from the draft. By summer 1942, however, it was nearly impossible for men to continue to receive draft deferments solely for being trained Ordnance inspectors. In July 1942, the Ordnance Department began to explicitly recruit and train women to serve as inspectors, training them along with eligible men. Training of Ordnance inspectors had long been conducted at Arsenals, but to meet the new demand the Ordnance Department established special training programs at other institutions. For example, the Los Angeles region of the San Francisco Ordnance District established a special training school at the University of Southern California, which enrolled its first class in February 1942. By the time the third class enrolled in July 1942, two-thirds of the trainees were women. After some experience with women inspectors. Ordnance concluded they often made superior workers:
"It was found that women inspectors were inclined to be more careful on details, did not become dissatisfied with monotonous work and were not continually asking for advancement. They were used more and more in inspection work, even being placed on such work as tank assembly to inspect welding procedure."

The Richmond plant had several employees whose specific jobs arose when Ford began hiring women. Angela Zatta, a native of Italy, was custodian of the women's rest rooms. Stella DeJamett and her husband, a wounded veteran of World War I, moved to Richmond from Fresno at the beginning of WWII to work in war production. Her job at Ford's Richmond branch was Matron of Women, a sort of in-plant police officer for women, who could observe activities of workers throughout the facility, including women's rest rooms. When the Richmond branch began employing women, it established a separate first aid station for them. Molly Mansfield was the registered nurse who staffed it. Edna Guyn served as the women's counselor at the Richmond branch. She had an office, but conducted most of her counseling as she walked about the plant. Women could raise any issue with her, whether about family matters at home or troublesome situations at work. She was able to help resolve some issues informally that otherwise might have led to formal grievances.

Much of the above information on women workers at the Richmond Tank Depot derives from a report called "Women Man the Battle Stations" prepared by Fern Hurley for inclusion in history of the San Francisco Ordnance District. Hurley visited the Richmond plant on 28 February and 1 March 1945, interviewing foremen and women production workers. Hurley described the work some of the women were doing, but she devoted as much attention in her report to other aspects of the women's lives, especially in three areas: 1) their background and what brought them to work at Ford, 2) family members serving in the armed forces, and 3) how other members of the family, especially children, help the women take care of the work necessary to maintain a home.