World War II

The classic images of women in war work, along with the copious news coverage of women joining the workforce in traditionally male jobs, make it seem that World War II increased women's participation in the workforce forevermore. While more women were enticed into working due to war production, these new women workers didn't stick around after the war. While thousands of women joined the Louisville workforce during the war, most returned home leaving only a net gain of 2% more female workers by 1950 over the numbers in 1940. (Census 1940)(Census 1950)

The more telling impact of this experience played out in raised acceptance of women's ability to do a wider array of labor — jobs formerly considered the sole domain of men. Along with society's realization of the capabilities of women came the women's realization of how much better paid traditionally male jobs were compared with the jobs women typically held.

War Plants

In September 1939, fifty-four manufacturing plants in Louisville along with thousands of others throughout the nation had sealed, emergency orders from the United States Army in case of war. Manufacturers didn't know exactly what they would be asked to produce, just that their plants were the best equipped to provide the war materiel. ("War" 1939)

By October 1939, manufacturers in Louisville were ramping up production resulting in additional positions. Between August and September, the number of employees at Ford Motor Company went from 150 to 714; similarly, Reynolds Metals Company employment rose from 333 to 453. [#2764 McWain 1939] Louisville & Nashville Railroad called back 1,100 employees in its Louisville shops and another thousand at its other locations. ("2,100" 1939)

Louisville and nearby Charlestown, Indiana, soon became ideal locations for new government-funded war plants. Louisville provided an urban area far from vulnerable coasts that could provide the skilled machinists and assemblers needed.("135-Acre" 1940) The War Department began working on plans for sixty munitions plants across the nation, including a $25 million smokeless powder factory in Charlestown to be run by the du Pont Company.("Payroll" 1940) Along the Ohio River, a 135-acre site was chosen for a naval gun plant, the Louisville Ordnance Works. Like the Charlestown plant, the gun plant was built by the government and then run by a private company. In the case of the gun plant, Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company ran the plant which produced gun slides, breach housings, mounts and more for naval vessels.("135-acre" 1940) Other new plants followed, including the Hoosier Ordnance Works, run by Goodyear Tire and Rubber ("$13M" 1941); National Carbide Company, Goodrich Koroseal Plant, and the du Pont synthetic rubber plant.("Analyst") The new plants, along with additional demand for materials from existing manufacturers drove up demand for labor. With the United States draft starting in September 1940, the number of men available for these positions plummeted and the number of women in sixty industrial plants in Louisville went from 3,200 in May 1941 to 6,500 at the end of 1942. ("60" 1942)

War Manpower Commission and the Womanpower Committee

In 1942 the government "froze" labor to control employment and directed it toward essential war production. Harry Hansbrough, Jr., the Louisville area director of the War Manpower Commission explained that "The Government is making every effort to encourage workers to leave non-essential employment and go into essential production." The work controls included limiting the worker's ability to change jobs. Workers needed a special certificate to leave an "essential" job.("Hansbrough" 1942)

Margaret Hayden experienced this during her war work. She had started working at Curtiss-Wright which was building gliders at the time, but a deadly accident meant that glider production was scrapped. Curtiss-Wright shut down briefly while it retooled its facilities to produce C46 planes. During this time, Margaret took work at the Charlestown Bag Plant. Her supervisor at the bag plant told her she couldn't quit because it was a government job and she was frozen to the job, but once Curtiss-Wright finished its plant renovation she got a certificate and was able to quit the bag plant because the riveting work at Curtiss-Wright was considered a more essential work type.(Hayden 1998)

In August 1943, the War Manpower Commission formed a Womanpower Committee to help recruit women who were not yet in the workforce. Anna H. Settle, one of Louisville's few female attorneys and the president of the Consumer's League of Louisville, headed the committee.

"Until now we have had an adequate supply of women normally on the labor market to fill the needs of the war effort in Louisville. Those are now practically exhausted. It is necessary that we now call on the women who do not normally work to do their patriotic duty in the war effort. Between 10,000 and 15,000 women are needed to keep the civilian home front and war industries going, and the committee recognizes that there is just as severe a need in the civilian industries - the stores and the laundries, as well as other places - to protect minimum civilian economy as there is for women in the war plants."("Woman's" 1943)

The Womanpower Committee reached out to women at schools, churches, department stores, groceries, and through newspaper articles and even house-to-house canvassing. ("Woman's Front" 1943) ("Woman Registration" 1944) Their efforts basically doubled, then trebled, the number of monthly placements of women in jobs. In their first four months, they placed 15,182 women. ( Snyder "Jobs" 1943)

In January 1944 war plants in Louisville implemented a mandatory 48-hour week.(Wood 1944) Mayor Wilson Wyatt made an appeal to "all women who can make themselves available" to join the workforce in war plant and civilian jobs as the War Manpower Committee reported current orders for 1,820 female war plant positions and 540 "home-front" jobs.("Plants" 1944)

Women in Manufacturing

Women made up approximately 25% of war production workers. In Louisville, women war workers were employed in factories, munition plants, and distilleries.

Curtiss-Wright, for example, hired women to work machinery in the first world war and found them "more than capable to do a man's job" (Bunker 1942) So in World War II, Curtiss-Wright brought women in again to help build planes. W. G. Shillig, the employment manager at a Louisville plant, claimed that his company hired women "from 18 to 95" as long as they were qualified to do the job.("War" 1942)

Curtiss-Wright established training courses at du Pont Manual High School and at Ahrens Trade School. The classes at Manual ran in two shifts: 11 pm to 3 am and 3 am to 7am. At Ahrens, classes ran from 3 pm to 7 pm and from 7 pm to 11 pm. After the free twelve-week course, the trainees were eligible to work for the airplane-building company. ("It Takes" 1942)

"This man came in ... and he said they were getting people to work at Curtiss-Wright and he asked me if I was mechanically inclined... So I went up to... Ahrens Trade School... Learned how to read blue prints and sheet metal. We worked on Navy Helldivers, doing repair work on them." -Rosalie Abney(Harmon "Abney" 1998)

While some, like Rosalie Abney, worked directly on the planes, others received training to work in the engineering department. From 1943 to March 1945, Curtiss-Wright identified 918 female college students and graduates and trained them in aerodynamics, engineering, and design at universities around the country. Of those women, 766 became Curtiss-Wright "Cadettes" working in mechanical engineering jobs at Curtiss-Wright plants.(Cochrane 2013) In Louisville, Curtiss-Wright tapped Bunny Wright, a recent graduate of St. Mary's College at Notre Dame, to receive this training. She earned $20 per week while she attended training five days a week.("Curtiss" 1943)


Many Louisville women commuted to Charlestown, Indiana, where the Hoosier Ordnance Plant produced ammunition for the war effort. The federal government contracted with a subsidiary of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to equip and run the bagging plant where women provided much of the labor.("$13M" 1941) One of their jobs involved sewing silk bags which were then packed with gunpowder from an adjacent smokeless powder plant. The plant started out with 250 power sewing machines.("5,000" 1941) Managers anticipated starting off with 2,600 women working two shifts. ("Goodyear" 1941) By December 9, 1941, plant managers indicated they intended to hire an additional shift of women workers in order to ramp up production to double or triple their production capacity.("War Brings" 1941) By mid-1943 women accounted for 56% of workers at the plant. They worked 48-hour weeks and made the same pay as men doing the same jobs.(Adkins 1943)

"I used to make kidneys for the gunpowder [for] two dollars and something an hour, oh boy, that was good money." -Fannie Lane (Marino 1998)


Alcohol was one of the key ingredients for making gunpowder, and Kentucky's many distilleries were in a unique position to fill that need. The War Production Board ordered distilling companies to produce large quantities of high-proof alcohol — not just for the manufacture of gunpowder, but also for the production of rubber, gasoline, plastics, and more.(Veach 2013, 101) At peak capacity, the distilleries were running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.(Purcell 1998, 78)

At Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, women were employed in every operation, including a woman who served as plant manager.(Porter 1942) As women came to Louisville from rural areas to work in the factories, housing became an issue. Seagram addressed this by opening their own "superdormitory" at 1435 S. Third Street to house some of its out-of-town women workers.("Seagram" 1943) Unlike plants created for war production, the distilleries existed well before the war, and intended to keep operating well after it. This put them in a position that other plants couldn't offer — the possibility of ongoing employment opportunities for women workers.

Military Work

In May 1942, Congress created the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), and in October decreed that they be paid the same as regular Army. In discussions about how the WAACS would be set up, the War Department wanted the head of the WAACS to be a director equal in rank (but not in name) with a major. They wanted to match the WAACS ranks to the ranks of Army nurses. Newly enlisted privates in the WAACS earned $21 per month. ("W.A.A.C.S." 1942) By early August, 200 women from the Louisville area had placed applications to join the WAACS. ("200" 1942) Early graduates of WAAC training joined military bases in Kentucky at Camp Campbell and Fort Knox (40 miles south of downtown Louisville). ("New Life" 1942) Mrs. Ethel P. Foster was one of the first women from Louisville to join. "I have been trying to get into active service since before Congress passed the law creating the Waacs." ("Six" 1942) She had already taken fourteen weeks of training in motor mechanics and was serving as a member of the Women's Ambulance Defense Corps of Louisville.

In 1943 WAACs became WACs, dropping the "Auxiliary" and earning the same privileges as male soldiers. ("50" 1943) Before the WAACS were even formed, women occasionally served in special assignments in the Army. Mildred H. Marglin, for example, earned a special post in the U. S. Army Signal Corps stationed in 1939 because of her special skills. Stationed at Fort Knox, she was the first woman appointed to the Signal Corps during World War II and one of its fastest operators — able to transmit 45 to 50 words per minute.

"It's very hard work. It's confidential work. All the messages are of a secret nature, concerned mostly with troop movements. You feel that you have a heavy responsibility in dealing with the lives of men that might somehow be affected by any mistake you might make."(Ross 1942) — Mildred Marglin

While Mildred didn't hold Army rank, she received pay equal to a second lieutenant.

Also in 1942, the WAVES (short for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were created for the Navy. (Kerr 1942) The first calls for women officer candidates went out in August. Officer candidates needed to be between the ages of 21 and 50 years old and mothers of children under 18 "need not apply."("Navy Calls" 1942) Enlisted women needed to be between 20 and 36 years old and made $50 per month plus maintenance expenses. The women were meant to release able-bodied men so that they could serve on active sea duty. Women's positions included yeomen (typists, clerks, etc.), radiomen, and storekeepers.(Byrd 1942) The Brown Hotel served as one of the recruitment stations in Louisville.(Snyder "Waves" 1943) Miss J. Ann Ayers Hughes became the first Louisville woman to receive a commission in the Waves. Previously, a physical education director at Louisville Collegiate School, she took her oath on October 26, 1942 at the Ninth Naval District in Chicago.("Wave" 1942)

Women in Health Professions

The Army and Navy also recruited nurses. An enlistment drive in August and September 1942 sought women who were registered graduate nurses, under 40 years old, single, and who agreed not to marry during their service. Military services needed six nurses for every 1,000 soldiers and three nurses for every 1,000 sailors. The need was so great that Congress appropriated $2 million for nursing education to help meet it.(Prior 1942) One of the first nurses from Louisville in the Army Nursing Corps was Frances Hill Read.("Drive" 1942)

With nurses leaving civil positions to serve in the military, the nation suffered a nurse shortage. By early 1943, the American Hospital Association projected a need for 50,000 new nurses and the Defense Health and Welfare Service indicated that the War Manpower Commission would establish an agency to ration and assign nurses.("Nurses May" 1943)

While the value of nurses became more evident with the war needs, nurses experienced a lack of sufficient compensation for their training and skills. In a 1940 letter to the editor of the Courier — Journal, a nurse pointed out the understaffing and under payment of nurses at the Louisville City Hospital: "Nurses are working for about $60 or $65 a month, plus meals, after having received three years of specialized training. Nurses are professional people... and as such should receive a professional salary."("City" 1940)

In Louisville, Mayor Wilson Wyatt and Hugh R. Leavell, Louisville's Health Director, called on women to volunteer for Red Cross training as nurses' aides. It was estimated that approximately one-third of Louisville's graduate nurses would be called into war services causing an acute shortage of nurses in the area. The training course required 80 hours (35 hours in a classroom and 45 hours in a hospital) and women were expected to provide a minimum of 150 hours of service per year — without compensation.("Wyatt" 1942)

By 1944 the Army Nurse Corps was in dire need of more nurses. Col. Florence Blanchfield, superintendent of the Army Nurse Corps, estimated that the Corps needed another 8,500 nurses. "The situation is so urgent that we are now utilizing the services of civilian nurses who are qualified professionally in their field but fail to meet other (Army) requirements." Civilian nurses in Army hospitals received base pay of $1,800 per year, plus overtime.(Snyder "Number" 1944)

To compound the issue, nursing schools in Louisville excluded Black students until after World War II. The Day Law (passed in 1904) precluded teaching students of different races under the same roof making training Black nurses in predominantly White hospitals illegal. In 1948, a special arrangement was made so that the Red Cross Hospital at 1436 S. Shelby Street could accept Black students and those students could receive training in the Negro Ward of General Hospital while attending basic science courses at the Louisville Municipal College. Miss Anna J. Delmore became the school's director. She earned her bachelor's degree from Teachers' College, Columbia University.("Nurse School" 1948)

"Men's jobs" and the return of women to the home

Throughout the war, newspapers emphasized the idea that women were taking "men's jobs" through articles like the 1942 article titled "More and more women are taking 'men's jobs' in the Louisville area."(Porter 1942) It served as a reminder that women could hold these positions — until the men returned from war.

In a 1943 survey by Woman's Home Companion, three out of four women answered "yes" to the question "Should women relinquish their war jobs after the war?"("They'll" 1943) While the question itself was leading, the response reflected the general sentiment of the time: that women who joined the workforce during the war should return their homes and make way for returning soldiers and sailors.

Lucille Thorne, a part time teacher who drove for Louisville Taxi and Transfer Company during the summer indicated, "I like my job, but I'm willing to give it up to any man that needs it. I believe jobs like mine eventually will go back to men — and they're entitled to them ..."(Porter 1945)

Leloma Trammell, who worked in Tube Turns, said, "I have a brother in the Navy, and when he comes back... I don't want any woman standing in his way. So I'm not going to be a woman standing in any other serviceman's way."("They'll" 1943)

Some women left the workforce to start a family as their husbands returned. Some left because the work ended, as in the case of war plants that shut down. Rosalie Abney, for example, who worked at Curtiss-Wright, left before the plant closed and stayed out of the workforce until after her husband Ben died.(Harmon "Rosalie" 1998) Others, like Everylee Ashby, felt they had made plenty of money during the war and didn't need to continue working. "I had saved up enough bonds.. I had a whole bunch of money... I guess I'd say I had about $3000. At that time that was a whole lot of money."(Harmon "Everylee" 1998)

But not all women left. Fannie Lane worked at the bag plant during the war. Afterward she wanted to continue to work so that she could have her own money and be independent.(Marino "Fannie" 1998) Others developed skills and a desire to keep working.

Juanita Hyde started her welding career during World War II. She welded invasion bridges at American Elevator Company, then moved to Reynolds Metals in 1944 to weld field kitchens for the Army. She stayed with Reynolds after the war, working there for 22 years until she retired in 1966.(McCormick 1968)

"By golly, they can't talk me out of my job with all that back-to-the-home stuff," said Nina Hardesty, a driver for Louisville Railway. "This is the best job I ever had."(Porter 1945) Another driver, Mrs. Oma Canter, joined Louisville Transit Company when it hired women to drive street cars during the war. She stayed on with the company for 21 years learning to drive trolleys, street cars, and buses. (Porter 1966)

Despite some women staying in the workforce, the majority of those who started working in World War II ended up leaving the workforce when the war ended. By 1950, women's participation in the workforce had returned to just 32.8%.(Census 1950) Nearly half (49%) of single women in Louisville were working while only 22.1% of married women (whose spouses were present) were part of the labor force.


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"Bottling room at National Distillers Products Corp., Louisville, Kentucky, 1941." CS180584, Caufield & Shook Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. 1940s.
"Women Sewing Bags at Hoosier Ordnance Plant, Charlestown, Indiana, Circa 1940s" CSO239466, Caufield & Shook Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. 1940s.
"Women Training as Machinists at Dupont Manual High School, Louisville, Kentucky, 1942" CS 188467, Caufield & Shook Collection, Photographic Archives, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky. July 24, 1942.