he War Manpower Commission set up the Women's Advisory Committee on December 5, 1942, and the government began to actively enlist women to join the war industry effort. Using advertising campaigns in newspapers and magazines, the government encouraged women to bear their responsibility in the war effort and look beyond their traditional roles of housekeeper, mother, and secretary. Women became welders, burners, electricians, painters, draughtsmen, mechanics, crane operators, and truck drivers, taking the place of husbands, brothers, and sons.
In March 1942, rumors abounded at the shipyard that women would be taking welding classes.
The first female welder was on the job in South Portland in October 1942.
I was the first girl at the shipyard that went on cranes....I enjoyed every minute of it. I loved it....
Rita (Farrell) Desilets - Crane Operator, PHM SPSY Oral Histories
At the height of the war, almost 18 million middle and working class women were working in all forms of occupation. 3,700 women were employed in South Portland as administrative workers, service workers, and in typically “men only” positions including roles as mechanics, clean up crews, crane operators, welders, electricians, and truck drivers. Over 10 percent of the workforce was female.
Many of these women had never worked outside the home in their lives. Many had families; many were over the age of 30.
The government had not expected this demographic when it had put out the call for women workers in the early days of the recruiting program. The original objective had been to recruit young, unmarried women. It was generally expected that a married woman—particularly one with children to provide and care for—would not be in the workforce. Indeed, many women during that time refrained from taking these jobs in the war industry for that reason and objections by male family members. War or no war—a woman's place was not on the job site.
But as the war progressed and worker shortages became more acute, new advertising directed specifically at the married woman helped to make the transition into these jobs more acceptable.
Women sought out these jobs for several reasons. Some felt a strong sense of duty to the war effort. Others were attracted by the pay (double that of most other jobs). With husbands—or killed in service—many women had to start providing for their families.