Back to Conference Participants Abstract: Wartime Brooklyn: Women in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, 1942 1946  




Rosie the Riveter, the home front heroine of World War II, passed from the scene over fifty years ago. Yet, this popular poster image of the self-assured wartime woman civilian defense worker persists in the public mind as one of the most iconic figures of the war era, while Rosie, in academic circles, remains the subject of continued scholarly debate over the extent of economic and social change engendered by the war.

Was World War II a "watershed event" for American women? As some historians suggest, a catalyst for the modern employment of women production workers and full gender equality in the work place? Or are more recent historians correct when they argue that widespread World War II employment of women defense workers altered neither the sexual division of labor nor long term cultural attitudes about the proper place of women in American society.
The World War II era Brooklyn Navy Yard is a good place to test these positions. The yard aggressively recruited women production workers throughout the war. At peak employment in January 1945, Naval officials reported that 4,657 female production workers were employed in Brooklyn Navy Yard jobs formerly held by males. They worked as pipe fitters, electricians, and welders; and as crime operators, truck drivers, and sheet-metal workers. They worked ten-hour shifts and six-day weeks. Finally, as shipyard workers, they received the highest wages paid to female labor in any wartime defense industry, which averaged $47.68 per week nationally in November 1944.

One of the biggest factors in allowing women access to industrial labor was the introduction of mass assembly techniques into the yard. The majority of the female production workers were employed here, as semi-skilled subassembly workers. For example, the ship-fitters shop, the yard's largest pre-assembly shop, employed the plurality of female production workers. Chiefly employed as pattern makers (loftsmen), welders, and welderıs helpers, women ship fitters did much of the pre-assembly on ship's hulls before they reached the ways.
By the warıs end, yard women were employed in nearly every phase of shipbuilding and repair. The yard's impressive wartime production record‹17 ships built, 250 ships converted, and 5,000 ships repaired‹resulted from the combined effort of male and female labor.

The yard itself expanded exponentially during the war. The civilian workforce peaked in October 1944 at 71,663, up from a pre-war 1939 employment of 9,884. The Brooklyn yard including its annexes in Queens and Bayonne was the worldıs largest shipyard in terms of personnel and production. In addition, the Brooklyn yard was New York Stateıs largest single industrial employer during World War II. In 1945 its monthly payroll alone totaled $16 million, fueling a booming Brooklyn economy.

The Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods adjacent to the yard were transformed during the war. Boomtown conditions prevailed on Sands Street were scores of small retailers, gas stations, and restaurants catered to the needs of the yardıs civilian and naval personnel. Hundreds of yard workers lived nearby.

Thus within two years the women production workers of the Brooklyn Navy Yard had become important and accepted members of shipyard society. Last name familiarity, shop floor fraternization, and shared workforce challenges and aggravations were all measures of the growing wartime camaraderie between the sexes.

The historical record shows, however, that these gains did not last into the postwar era. Most significantly, nearly all war era female production workers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, like their male counterparts, were hired as 'war service' appointees, which restricted their actual employment to "the duration of the war and for six months thereafter." Even during the war, most women production workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard worked in sex segregated crews in semi-skilled positions at the lowest end of their craft. By war's end nearly all had been demobilized, displaced by male workers favored by seniority and by selective service and civil service policies that granted preferential hiring and retention rights to returning servicemen.