Voices of the Wisconsin Past: Women Remember the War, 1941-1945

By Michael E. Stevens (Editor)

Paperback: $15.95

ISBN: 978-0-87020-272-8

168 pages, 41 b/w photos, 6 x 9"

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Women Remember the War, 1941-1945 offers a brief introduction to the experiences of Wisconsin women in World War II through selections from oral history interviews in which women addressed issues concerning their wartime lives.

In this volume, more than 30 women describe how they balanced their more traditional roles in the home with new demands placed on them by the biggest global conflict in history. This book provides a rich mix of insights, incorporating the perspectives of workers in factories, in offices, and on farms as well as those of wives and mothers who found their work in the home. In addition, the volume contains accounts by women who served overseas in the military and the Red Cross. These accounts provide readers with a vivid picture of how women coped with the stresses created by their daily lives and by the additional burden of worrying about loved ones fighting overseas.

"Winning the War"

Rosie the Riveter endures among the most vivid images of women in World War II. She helped the war effort by working on the factory floor in a defense plant, replacing a man who had gone to fight and losing none of her femininity in the process - or so the story goes. Although women made remarkable contributions in industrial settings, the truth remains far more complicated than this single image.

In 1940, more than 260,000 out of nearly 1.2 million Wisconsin women over the age of fourteen worked for wages. With wartime labor shortages, many women moved into the work force, and by 1944 approximately 400,000 Wisconsin women obtained paid employment. Nationwide, two of every ten working women found employment in factories before the war; by 1944, that number increased to three in ten as women responded to patriotic appeals to aid the war effort by taking jobs for which they were previously were not considered. Even with the great influx of women into manufacturing, however, the vast majority remained in more traditional clerical and service jobs, and the number of women employed in these fields grew dramatically as well. Although only a small minority of all American women found themselves in industrial settings for the first time, their importance lies in the way that they challenged established stereotypes and served as models for later generations of women.

The 12 percent of American women with children under ten who worked outside the home in 1944 faced additional burdens. Whether or not their husbands served in the military, these women still shouldered much of the burden of maintaining the household and caring for the children. Furthermore, the war made these tasks more difficult: rationing and the shortage of consumer goods made shopping for basic household commodities more difficult, and many stores had closed by the time workers finished their shifts. Although the government and employers tried to establish childcare facilities, most women wage workers rejected them in favor of more informal arrangements.

The defense industry played a prominent role in Wisconsin during the war. Shipbuilding became a major industry in Manitowoc and Superior, and numerous large companies, including the West Bend Aluminum Company, Allis-Chalmers, Allen-Bradley, Rayovac, and J.I.Case, received government contracts and converted from their usual product to defense work. Rose Kaminiski and Evelyn Gotzion are two of the women who obtained nontraditional jobs, and their stories offer accounts of how they balanced their outside jobs with their family responsibilities.

Rose Kaminiski 

Born to Polish immigrants in Kenosha in 1918, Rose (Gudynowski) Kaminiski moved to the Milwaukee area at age ten. She married John Kaminiski in 1937 and has two daughters, one born in 1941 and the second in 1948. Her husband was drafted in early 1944 and served on a minesweeper in the navy. Beginning in early 1943, she worked in the machine shop of the General Electric Supercharger plant. After about four months there, she became a crane operator for the Rex Chain Belt Company, and in February 1944, she obtained a similar position with Harnischfeger Corporation, remaining there until March, 1946, when she was released from her job to accommodate a returning veteran. She returned to Harnischfeger in 1950, working there until she retired in February, 1981. Widowed in November, 1988, Rose Kaminiski still lives on Milwaukee's south side.

I didn't work [at the supercharger plant] very long, and the thing I remember the most about it is that we replaced the men at that time. We ran a machine shop, and men came in and set up the machines, and we were like little robots. We just picked up the pieces and then inserted pieces in the milling machines and in the presses and in the threading machines and counted them and put them in the bins. You really felt like a machine, working a machine. It was not really fulfilling in the sense that you were really doing something or accomplishing something, because whenever you needed anything, a man had to come over and do it, because you did not know the ins and outs. Even though we were sent to night school for a while, that was just a short time. . . . And then they were asking for women to volunteer and they were hiring at what is now Rexnord, the old Rex Chain Belt Company, and they had an ordnance plant. . . .

Michael E. Stevens is the former State Historic Preservation Officer at the Wisconsin Historical Society. He is editor of the series "Voices of the Wisconsin Past," which also includes "Letters from the Front," "Women Remember the War," and "Remembering the Holocaust."
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