Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Women Workers During World War 2

rosie the riveter

J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

The woman who was the inspiration for the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster, often nicknamed as “Rosie the Riveter,” died this week at the age of 96. Naomi Parker Fraley was the subject of a photograph that inspired Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller’s inspirational poster, originally designed to boost morale in Westinghouse plants during World War 2. There was actually some controversy about the identity of “Rosie” and this Time article summarizes how they figured out who the real “Rosie” was. The poster went viral, and has come to be an icon for the empowerment of women in the workplace.

Youngstown was one of the “arsenals of democracy” supporting the war effort during World War 2 and there were a number of “Rosies” who contributed to that effort. My mother-in-law was one of them. She often spoke of her work during the war as an inspector with one of the aircraft part suppliers in Youngstown. She wasn’t a riveter, but rather inspected the riveting work of other workers, many of them women. She talked of getting people angry when she’d send an assembly back because of improper rivets. Her attitude was that the boys “over there” depended on them getting it right.

From what I’ve been able to learn, two of the places where aircraft parts were manufactured were General Fireproofing and Steel Door. At Steel Door, they manufactured fuel tanks for the aircraft. I also found this Mashable site with a color photo spread of real life “Rosies” in aircraft manufacturing during World War 2. Unfortunately, there were none from Youngstown.

Women filled the spaces in the workforce opened up by men who went away to serve. The steel mills in Youngstown ran three shifts and prospered during this time and there were a number of positions filled by women. Women filled between 8 and 16 percent of the production positions, particularly in rolling mills, fabrication, finishing, and shop maintenance.

Helena Auguston was one of the contributors to Youngstown State’s Oral History Program. During World War 2 she worked for a year at the Ravenna Arsenal making detonator caps for artillery shells. Then she worked for the remainder of the war at Republic and Copperweld, mostly as a crane operator. Here is a portion of her interview with William M. Kish of her experience:

OH1236 pdf

Screen capture from Helena Auguston interview with William M. Kish

Some, like Helena, returned to homemaking after the war. But many did not. They joined unions and advocated for women’s rights in the workplace. It clearly changed perceptions of what women were capable of doing and began to break down the divisions of work into “men’s work” and “women’s work.” This also began to change relations between husbands and wives as women no longer depended on a male wage earner, and how children were raised.

These women are some of the “unsung heroes” of World War 2. Youngstown played a huge role in the war effort, and women played a significant part in that effort, one that it seems appropriate to remember with the passing of the original “Rosie the Riveter.”

I’d love to hear some of your stories of women in your family who worked in Youngstown area factories during World War 2.

5 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Women Workers During World War 2

  1. Helena could have been my mom, Margie Baker Hanuschak! She too worked at the arsenal first and then later was an overhead crane operator at Republic Steel while my dad was overseas. I used to love driving over Center Street bridge with my mom and hearing her stories about her work in the mills. One thing she loved to tell me was how proud she was that when she was working the men never swore around her!

  2. I was a welder in WW11. Warren city mfg. we made LCM,s. landing barges for the navy. Worked 10 hr shifts, 7 days a week. Hot dirty work but we did it, peppy laakso

  3. Looking at the Mashable photos one labeled “c. 1942 War workers at a factory in Ohio” looks like they are working on a yellow tank. Probably a fuel tank. So that maybe a Youngstown photo.

    They also label 2 photos as being B-52 parts in 1942 I think they meant B-25s since the B-52 design did not start until 1946 and it did not fly until 1952.

    As usually enjoyed your piece.

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