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
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
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
record17 ships built, 250 ships converted, and 5,000 ships repairedresulted
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
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.