Friday, March 17, 2017

Women's History Month 2017: Munition Workers

The Bridgeport times and evening farmer. (Bridgeport, Conn.), 23 Sept. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
The Kaiser doesn't care who he hits, old, young -women or children- they are all alike to him. That's the kind of man we are fighting. Why don't you women retaliate? You can fight at the front and live [at] home by enlisting for pleasant easy work in the nearest munition factory. Gen Pershing wants more men, so Uncle Sam says to you "Making munitions is woman's job-will you go to work today and hasten the end of this terrible struggle? 

--A Message from the Front to the Women of Bridgeport.*

Women's work during war has included munitions work, even during the Civil War. Munitions work was seen as something women were capable of doing in the absence of men. While information and photos of British women who did munitions work seems more plentiful online, at least to me, there are some sources you can find for American women.

The best sources  in research are materials written at the time of an event or even shortly thereafter. Studies and histories are great for getting a sense of life during your ancestor's time. If you think your ancestor was a munitions worker you may be interested in Women as Munition Makers. A Study of Conditions in Bridgeport, Connecticut by Amy Hewes. Russell Sage Foundation (1917).

This booklet is an interesting look at women munition workers in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The majority (1/2) of the women interviewed were young (18-24) and unmarried. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, they reported first working at ages younger than 12 years of age. {26}

One woman interviewed for the study gave a glimpse of what it was like to do her job. "Twenty-one-year-old Nellie, even though she came fresh from a New Hampshire farm, found the eight-hour day's work on the heading machine very heavy. "The vibrations of the big machine shake your body so that after a few hours you're all tired out and nervous. There never is a day when I'm not tired at night, and I'm as strong as most."" {44} There's no doubt that the work was long and difficult. This study of 133 women found that only 35 worked less than 47 hours a week. 31 worked 55 hours or more.{44}

The book ends with reports on munition workers in England and France and some of their recommendations. The US was a late participant to World War I, American women's counterparts had been working these jobs for years. The toll on those women had been noticed and in some cases adjustments were made to add improvements to factory work.

Was your ancestor a munitions worker? One way to get a sense of that is to search the history for her locality to see if there were any munition factories nearby.

*Brown, Carrie. Rosie's Mom: Forgotten Women Workers of the First World War. Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University Press, 2002, page 150.

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