The times they are a changin’
Prior to World War II, women in American society typically held the traditional roles of homemaker, housewife, stay-at-home mother, and other unpaid jobs. While the exact numbers can be a bit sketchy, the Department of Labor lists the following. As of 1920, women comprised 21% of the paid American workforce. That number likely increased by the time where the US joined the war in late 1941. Of those women that were employed, they were overwhelmingly women of color who worked service and child care jobs.
That changed entirely during the war. As more men were sent to the front lines, factories, farms, and other industries saw a shortage of workers. Women stepped up to fill that role and support the war effort. Every sort of job was filled by women, but especially welders, riveters, and mechanics. Aircraft factories, shipyards, foundries, and ammunition factories saw the most women coming to work.
We can do it!
By 1943, 16 million women were employed across the country, making up an astonishing 65% of the total industrial workforce. Life Magazine showed this societal change by putting a female welder on the cover of their August 9, 1943 issue. The associated story vividly describes how women welders were “sweating near blast furnaces, directing giant ladles of molten iron, or pouring red-hot ingots.” It emphasized how, despite resistance from male coworkers, these women were accepted in the industry. Women welders quickly proved they could drop their hood and weld with the best of them. You’ve heard of Rosie the Riveter? Well these women were called Wendy the Welder!
Even though women had proven their skill and competence during WWII, they were expected to go back to being housewives once the war ended. Many women did and left factories at the war’s end. But the tides had turned and American women had proven that no job is too tough for them. They would no longer stand by and be labeled as weak and inferior to their male counterparts.
The war was also a huge moment for civil rights. While units such as the all-black Tuskegee Airmen or the Navajo Code-Talkers are the subject of numerous films, this diversity also extended back home. Black women entered the industrial workforce in record numbers as well. Once there, they endured not only sexism from male coworkers but racism from them as well. However, like their white women counterparts, they proved their skill on the job and won respect.
Your country calls!
It is worth mentioning that even though WWII gets all of the attention for bringing women into the workforce, it wasn’t the first time that happened. It is often overlooked that the same thing happened to a smaller degree during World War I.
The story is similar, women made less than 20% of the paid workforce. But as men joined the American Expeditionary Force and sailed off to fight in the trenches of France, they left jobs empty. These positions were enthusiastically filled by women, who endured bad treatment from their male colleagues. However, they proved crucial to the war effort and won respect for their actions. Women worked as welders, riveters, farmers, mechanics, and home front security.
But at the end of the war, they were told to return home, and mostly they did.
Smash the ceiling
In the decades following WWII, women continued to push through the glass ceiling in various fields. However, men tended to view women as good for office jobs, not industrial labor.
The 1983 movie Flashdance starred Jennifer Beals as a tough welder by day and dancer by night. This was shocking for many, as it was the first time the mainstream media depicted a woman as a skilled welder. Over the last 30 years in particular, women have made good headway into the field of welding. The changing culture of welding is also becoming more open, which is great!
The technological advances in welding have created high demand for qualified, trained welding professionals. Additionally, about half of American welders are over 50 and nearing retirement age. Metal shops and manufacturers are desperate for good metal fabricators. And women are answering the call, proving once again that they are just as skilled and capable as anybody else. The numbers are telling. In the late 2000s, 2% of welders were women, but that number had jumped to 6% by 2014-2015. And these numbers continue to grow!
Resources for women in welding
A few years back we did a contest about women in welding called Behind the Mask. Check it out and see these great stories from strong and capable women!
Lastly, are you or somebody you know a woman interested in welding? If so, check out these great resources:
Women Welders – Facebook: an active online community supporting and promoting the work of women in welding. Stop in for some great photos and lively conversation.
American Welding Society: Online courses, educational scholarships, industry news.
School Locator: Find a program in your area with this American Welding Society locator tool.