Looking Back: Strived for Equality

Jim Marquardt

One significant chapter in the long struggle to achieve equal rights for women came with World War II when women went to work in factories and made a major contribution to the war effort. We have all seen depictions of “Rosie the Riveter” with her polka dot kerchief and muscled arm. It wasn’t just patriotic hype, there was a big story behind that image. In the years from 1941 to 1945, Grumman Aircraft on Long Island hired thousands of women to build the planes that helped win the war. In 1941, at the very start of America’s involvement in the global conflict, the Valley Stream Mailextolled “the emerging new role of American women as a crucial part of the nation’s industrial army.” The Babylon Leaderreported that “the increasing demands by war production plants in the Nassau-Suffolk area has developed a manpower problem which can only be met by the active cooperation of all employable women.”

In March 1942, three months after the United States entered the war, six women walked onto the floor at Grumman’s Plant No. 1 in Bethpage, Long Island. By the end of 1943, 8,000 women had joined Grumman’s Production Corps. They soon were appreciated for their patience with repetitive tasks, their dexterous fingers, and their ability to squeeze into awkward spaces to do critical jobs as the planes moved along the production line. Women predominated in certain skills, the electrical department in Plant 14 had 52 women and only two men.

A native of Sag Harbor and a graduate of Pierson High School, Leon “Jake” Swirbul, was a co-founder of Grumman and credited with bringing the company from 700 employees in 1939 to 25,500 in 1943, an amazing feat of organization. On Long Island, “The Janes Who Made the Planes” helped build 7,700 Wildcat fighter planes, 12,000 Hellcats and 10,000 Avenger torpedo planes that flew off aircraft carriers and crude Pacific island runways. Here in Sag Harbor, the Bulova Watchcase factory employed over 500 people, many of them local women, to turn out telescopic sights and aircraft instruments. Betty Di Sunno, who lived in Amagansett and later in Sag Harbor, assembled timing devices for munitions. Antoinette D’Angelo of North Haven was on the assembly line at Grumman in Bethpage.

A 1998 publication “Long Island Women, Activists and Innovators” sponsored by Hofstra University described those days. The average woman war worker was 36 years old. In six to ten week courses, Grumman taught them the basics of riveting, reading blueprints, and sub-assembly of aircraft. College educated women were recruited as apprentice engineers in aircraft design, given crash courses in drafting, calculus, mechanics, and aerodynamics. Grumman realized it had to make their busy lives a little easier and arranged cafeterias, exercise breaks, moral boosting social activities, and decent rest rooms. Car-pooling, gas shortages and long work days were difficult for everyone. Counselors oriented new workers to factory life and tried to help solve family problems. The major worry was childcare. Most mothers turned for help to relatives or neighbors while Grumman operated three nurseries in nearby communities that could accommodate children between two and five years old, at 50 cents a day.

Men on the assembly line were not always receptive to working women. Practical jokes were played on the women, and a male foreman remembers lots of catcalls and whistles. The women had to realize they were hired only for the duration of the war. As the war wound down, foremen planned for massive lay-offs. After V-J Day, Grumman laid off all employees, and two weeks later called back only male employees. In September 1945, Juliet Gattuss of Lynbrook wrote a poignant letter to President Harry Truman. “I was one of the first women to be employed by the Grumman Engineering Corp. back in March of 1942, now I’m given to understand that the Grumman Corp. will not rehire any women in their shop…I happen to be a widow with a mother and son to support…My reason for writing to you, is not for pity, but I would like to know why, after serving a company in good faith for almost 3-1/2 years it is now impossible to obtain employment with them. I am a lathe hand and was classified as skilled labor, but simply because I happen to be a woman I am not wanted.” There’s no record of response from the president. We shouldn’t blame Grumman, at the time that’s just the way it was, and warplane production was quickly tapering off. The company also had to make room for returning servicemen.

Home Front, a 1982 book by Susan Hartmann recorded the huge expansion of the nationwide war effort. Female labor grew by 6.5-million. In 1944, women composed over 35 percent of the work force. Between 1940 and 1945, women workers grew by 50 percent. But the story included some sobering facts for women — in 1944 skilled women made an average weekly wage of $31.21 while skilled men earned $54.65 ($444 vs. $787 in today’s dollars). Despite such payroll inequality, polls reported that some 61 percent of the women wanted to keep their jobs after the war. So despite their major contribution to winning the war, women had to continue the struggle for equal rights, and their struggle continues today.