By Stanley Bowling, Content Digitization Manager
“Look at those dollies’ fingers go!” said the vice-president of manufacturing to the correspondent from the Chicago Tribune Marcia Winn, about his women workers. As the discussion continued, he referred to his “dollies” or his “dolls” and believed he was paying them a compliment. Certainly there was nothing amiss in this senior leader’s feelings towards, or appreciation of women. That is, by 1942 standards.
A realization about the history of women in the workplace
The hard-won knowledge we have today was not the norm for our parents or grandparents. The “greatest generation” that fought the Nazis and made the world safe for democracy did not set the modern standard for relationships with women, especially in the workplace.
This realization came as a result of working on a ProQuest database project called Women’s Magazine Archive. It is difficult to imagine any workplace where women cannot excel, but there was a time when women’s skills and abilities were not recognized because the opportunity did not exist.
This portion of the Chicago Tribune interview was part of a publication distributed by the National Industrial Information Committee on behalf of the National Association of Manufacturers. It was intended to help manufacturers accept the fact that, with the advent of World War II, in order to meet production demands, there would not be enough men to work in the factories and the “dollies” would have too. For the current generation of workers, women in a manufacturing environment are normal and expected, but it started during World War II.
It was destiny!
I was part of the team preparing to digitize publications for Women's Magazine Archive and while working on content from 1942 issues of Good Housekeeping, I found a short-story entitled “Who Is Sylvia?”
The story exemplified the stereotype of working women in the 1940’s and illustrated how the War changed society and the role of women. It was a great coincidence that the main character worked at radio station WMA (which I took as a sign that Women’s Magazine Archive was meant to be created).
Sylvia’s story foreshadows Betty Friedan’s well-known book, The Feminine Mystique published 21 years after this 1942 Good Housekeeping article. In “Who is Sylvia?” the reader learns about a woman who meets a man at work, gets married, quits her job, grows bored as a homemaker, then gets divorced. After the divorce, she wishes to start a new career and becomes “Sylvia” the radio host. Around the same time, she also decides that she wants to return to her husband only to find he has married a rival.
“Who Is Sylvia?” was published in 1942, just a few months after the U.S. entered World War II. Over the next several years, as “Sylvia” became “Rosie the Riveter,” American women would make an important contribution to the U.S. war effort, both as workers in defense industries and by serving in the U.S. Military. By some estimates, over 3 million women worked in war industries during World War II while another 350,000 served in the U.S. Military.
Primary sources covering women in the workplace
The women’s historical collections from ProQuest capture the role women played in industry during World War II. Two ProQuest databases that focus on the role of women in the workforce are History Vault, Women at Work during World War II and the Women’s Magazine Archive.
Women at Work during World War II consist of records of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor and Records of the Women’s Army Corps. These collections shed light on issues such as equal pay, child care, treatment of women by male workers and by labor unions, and women’s contribution to the U.S. military during World War II.
Women’s Magazine Archive provides access to the backfiles of leading women’s consumer periodicals of the late-19th and 20th centuries, including Ladies’ Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. These key sources facilitate the questioning and interpretation of numerous aspects of history, culture, and society, relating to gender and family roles, social history, health, history of economics/consumerism, fashion, and more.
Learn more, see examples, and sign up for free trials of resources for studies in women’s history.