he first of the South Portland shipyards (called the East Yard and at the time run by Todd-Bath Ironworks) broke ground Dec 20, 1940. Its mission under the Roosevelt Administration and United States Maritime Commission was to build ships destined for Britain under the Lend Lease program. By early 1941, production had increased to include domestic cargo ships under the Emergency Shipbuilding Building Program—the Liberty ships—and a second yard (the West Yard, run by South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation) was opened. The United States entered World War two on Dec 10, 1941. One year later, these two yards were heavy into production and had merged into one company, The New England Shipbuilding Corporation.
In the early days of World War II, 12 million women across the country were engaged in some kind of work but mostly service and administrative, teaching, or factory jobs—work that was considered “respectable” for a single, young, or recently married woman with no children.
The situation was no different at the South Portland shipyards. There, as everywhere else in the early pre-war days, women took positions as nurses, office workers, and cafeteria workers—traditionally female work.
Once the nation entered the war, however, the demand for skilled laborers (including physically demanding positions in heavy industry, munitions, construction, mechanics, and heavy equipment operating) outgrew the supply of men, who were leaving the country in ever-increasing numbers for the battlefields overseas. Back home, there were wartime contracts to uphold, war efforts to maintain, and vital services to keep going such as hospitals and transportation.
If the level of war production output was to be maintained, and services continued, there would be no choice: women had to fill the void.