The Armory was known for its exemplary manufacturing methods – and during both World Wars, many of the people manning the machines were women.
As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, Zydalis Bauer sat down with Park Ranger Susan Ashman at the National Historic Site to learn more about the history and roles of the Women Ordnance Workers (or WOWs) who “answered the call” by joining the war effort at the Amory during both World War I and World War II.
Read the full transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: In every conflict from the Revolutionary War through the War in Vietnam, the historic Springfield Armory played a critical role in arming U.S. Troops with muskets, rifles, and other munitions.
The Armory was known for its exemplary manufacturing methods, and during both world wars, many of the people manning the machines were women.
As we continue to celebrate Women’s History Month, I sat down with Park Ranger Susan Ashman at the National Historic Site to learn more about the history and roles of the women workers who “answered the call” by joining the war effort at the Armory during both World War One and World War Two.
Susan Ashman, Springfield Armory National Historic Site: During World War One, it was really interesting because there were no women here before April of 1917. So, July 16th, 1917, the first woman was hired, and she was an inspector. And by the end of World War One, there was around 748 women who worked here. And there was hundreds who applied to — to work here. So that was really interesting, too.
And they kind of paved the way for women in World War Two. So, that is an interesting story, too, because at first, not too many women were applying here. And so, management was wondering why. And they actually went door to door in Springfield like asking, you know, “Why aren’t you working at the Armory? It’s your patriotic duty!”
And so, come to find out, it was childcare that was lacking. And so, the Armory opened a couple of child care facilities because they needed that workforce here.
Zydalis Bauer: That’s the first thing I thought about with the women. I said, the men are off at war, but they still have the duties at home with the children and everything.
So, tell me more about some of the challenges that women faced moving to the workforce, but also having to tend to a home and children.
Susan Ashman: That was challenging because some of them did feel bad, but then others…wait, this is a time where they can be financially independent as well. And that was that was pretty new during that time because we always get that picture of June Cleaver in “Leave It to Beaver” where they take care of the home.
But that’s not enough sometimes and you need that income. And so, it was perfect. It was right across the street to many. Some lived out different cities and they would bus in here, too. So, that was huge is mainly the financial independence that the Armory gave to a lot of these women.
Zydalis Bauer: And not only financial independence, when we were talking earlier, also like the social independence that they had, right?
Susan Ashman: Yes! Yes.
Zydalis Bauer: Tell me more about that, that new aspect that entered their lives.
Susan Ashman: Absolutely. The Armory was quite the social atmosphere. I had no idea until I read these Armory newsletters that were published in house here during the war years.
And so, they would — the publishers — would encourage different employees in different departments to submit poetry, sporting events, the clubs, the teams, what’s happening here at the Armory. And when you have just under 14,000 employees, you all don’t know each other. There was basically three campuses here. So, what are you doing at the Hill Shops or what am I doing at the Water Shops? So, this is a way for everybody — the news at the Armory.
So, I was so surprised to hear that they had a club for everything. I would have joined the lunch club, of course. But — but — but bridge and the Red Cross and such. But even sports teams, you…the sport, you name it, they had it here. And the most fascinating part to me was it was intramural sports. So, the men would — would challenge the women in bowling and tennis. And it was pretty fascinating.
And a lot of a lot of marriages came out of the Armory, too.
Zydalis Bauer: And I know that at its wartime peak, according to your website, it was over 40% women here.
Susan Ashman: I thought it would be more because they talk about the men going off to war, but come to find out, the men got deferments so that skill was needed here.
So, then the women joined the forces here too, and it really changed the dynamics.
Zydalis Bauer: Tell me more about that. Because you had women and men working side by side for the first time —
Susan Ashman: Yeah!
Zydalis Bauer: — equal jobs.
Susan Ashman: Right!
Zydalis Bauer: Was there any kind of resentment that came out of that or was there appreciation? What was the tone?
Susan Ashman: It’s a really good question, something we need to delve more into doing research here. But that started in World War One, too, the women.
So, I think for the men it was very different for them and I think there probably was some resentment along the way. I don’t even think they had women’s bathrooms here initially. So, a lot of changes, things we don’t think of today, again, those women during World War One paved the way for the women in World War Two.
And sure, there are some stories about, you know, women taking the jobs of men, but then again, these positions needed to be filled. And it’s interesting because the men, say if you are a machine operator, that man would step up and then train these women in these — these places.
And there’s this one woman, Mary Smith. She worked at the forge. I don’t know why she wanted to work on the forge because you needed — you took a test before you got hired here to see where you would do best. So, just because maybe you wanted to be in administration does not mean that’s where you would be. So, you were tested. Your dexterity, too, your fingers, your — your physical tests were done. And Mary Smith ended up on the forge.
Zydalis Bauer: And so, tell me more about some of those specific roles, because there were some dangerous jobs that these women were holding. What were they doing in — on the line in manufacturing?
Susan Ashman: Absolutely! So, you could be, like, there was clerks, there are administration, but there was also these women machine operators there at the forge. They were at the lathe. They were turning rifle stocks. They were put in trigger assemblies together. All those little pieces needed for the firearm, every little piece, they were working on that. There were inspectors.
So, it’s not just “these are men’s jobs, these are women’s jobs.” No, they — the women were doing the jobs that the men were doing, too.
Zydalis Bauer: And the way that you’re dressed today for us has significance. And these women workers became known as WOW’s Women Ordnance workers.
Susan Ashman: Right!
Zydalis Bauer: Tell me more about that movement and what came of that.
Susan Ashman: So, that was basically just women who worked for Army Ordnance, not just at the Armory, but at different manufacturing plants. So, if you worked with Army Ordnance, then you were a Woman Ordnance Worker.
And I think the best part of that is the bandanas that they wore. So, we all know Rosie the Riveter. Everybody is so familiar with Rosie the Riveter, but not so the WOWs. And so, Rosie has dots on her bandanas. But if you can see on mine, I have bombs.
So, no offense, Rosie, but I think the WOW’s got something on you there.
Zydalis Bauer: Absolutely.
Susan Ashman: And that just went on. So, if you were working here, you were a WOW.
Zydalis Bauer: And it boosts up morale, too, to kind of have this uniform for women.
Susan Ashman: Absolutely. Because it is a sad story, where a lot of these women at first were getting their hair caught in the machines and stuff. They were wearing loose clothes. And the Army said, “Hey, you have to wear tighter clothes and you have to have either hats or have your hair tied up,” and stuff.
So, the army came out with these bandanas, and they were so popular and morale, too, it was a great morale booster. Because they figured the higher morale here, the better production is going to be with that. And it was true, with that. So, they came out with the bandanas.
There was a dance here, the On to Victory Dance in, I think, February of 1943. And that’s when they gave out these bandanas. They would sign victory pledges. There was a dance that all three shifts could go to.
So, it was pretty neat.
Zydalis Bauer: I think it’s safe to say that these women changed the workforce forever.
Susan Ashman: Absolutely.
Zydalis Bauer: Tell me about the long-term impact that this era had on us.
Susan Ashman: Truly, “We can do it,” right? So, I think that really opened the doors. It gave the women the confidence that you can work — work a lathe, you can, like, be an inspector. These roles are not just for men. You are capable. And again, I think it was the confidence that they could do that.
And now look at what women are doing today: no doors are closed.