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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Redneck Rosies

An article in the Saturday Gazette-Mail on West Virginia women in World War II prompted me to post this paper that I presented in Baltimore at the Southern Women's History Conference a couple of years ago.

Redneck Rosies:
Gender and Consumerism in Rural Appalachia
During World War II


C. Belmont Keeney

Geraldine Lowe was a twenty year old married woman with a two year old daughter when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After the military drafted her husband, Geraldine went into the workforce for the first time in her life at an Ordinance Plant in South Charleston, West Virginia where she helped produce six inch gun barrels for the war effort. She worked an eight hour shift, from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, while her parents watched her child. Geraldine recalled, “It was hard work. It was filthy, dirty work. It was hot work . . . The machines would get so hot you had to put water on them and the water would splash all over you. Hot shavings came off of them when we were working too, and they would get into your hair and you had to hurry and get them out. You know, it was hard work.” Remembering her wartime experience, Geraldine said, “I was just like Rosie the Riveter, I guess.”[1]

But not exactly. Historians such as Studs Terkel and Michael C. C. Adams have demonstrated that many women recalled the war as a great positive, lending to the popular reference to the Second World War as the “Good War.”[2] Adams has gone as far as to say that many Americans “have filtered their recollections over the years, forgetting the strain and pain – just as when remembering a vacation, we forget the rainy days and bad motels.”[3] Certainly there is some truth to these statements. Many men and women of the World War II era do look at the war as if it was a positive good in their lives, particularly when it came to the economic boom brought on by the war. World War II ended the Great Depression in America and is seen by many historians as a watershed moment for women in our nation’s history. Six million new women entered the workforce between 1942 and 1945. Unlike previous decades, nearly 75% of these women were married. Additionally, many women either earned their own money for the first time or, for the first time, found a steady paycheck outside traditionally women-oriented careers.[4] According to many historians, the new professional opportunities, alongside an new or better income, helped usher in an era of growing financial and social independence for women, making them more prominent as consumers in the national economy. In the words of one woman on the home front, “We made the fabulous sum of thirty two dollars a week. To us it was just an absolute miracle. Before that we made nothing.”[5]

This feeling of euphoria was not unanimous among women. Geraldine Lowe’s experiences and recollections, along with many other West Virginia women, do not neatly fit into these aforementioned ideas. Oral histories, letters, and other historical evidence reveals that many Appalachian women saw the war as a great negative and not a positive influence on their lives. “It was a bad time, a sad time for everyone,” She recalled.[6] In addition to dealing with the stress of her husband and brothers risking their lives overseas, Geraldine still had to care for her child, write letters, participate in war bond drives, was pressured to volunteer for the Red Cross, and stand in line for hours each week to buy rationed goods. Instead of becoming an affluent consumer, Geraldine found herself consumed by the events around her. By the end of each day, she said, women were “totally, absolutely exhausted.”[7] In Geraldine’s view, there was no such thing as the “Good War.” This war, for a number of West Virginia women , dealt more with death and sacrifice than with new social and economic opportunities.

Geraldine’s experiences reveal that the income made possible by new jobs in war industries did not necessarily translate into extensive financial freedom for many West Virginia women. With mandatory government rationing, the pressure to buy war bonds, and the lingering shadow of the Great Depression in West Virginia, many of these Appalachian women, these Redneck Rosies, barely kept their head above water. This study will demonstrate that, for West Virginia women, World War II was a double-edged sword, simultaneously opening up new financial and consumer opportunities for women while also preventing them from taking full advantage of these opportunities.

It is true that the Second World War changed the role of women in the economy considerably. Not only did millions of new women enter into the work force, they did so in predominately male-dominated industries. In places such as the automobile industry, for example, women worked as welders and on assembly lines to produce for victory.[8] While a number of Appalachian women left their homes to travel to Detroit, Akron, Cincinnati, or Hartford to take part in these industries, they also found opportunities within the state. Union Carbide, the most prominent of the chemical producers in southern West Virginia began to hire women to run control tests in laboratories.[9] The Westinghouse Lamp Division in Charleston began hiring women in large numbers to work on assembly lines.[10] Women began working for the state police as radio operators and even entered into the lumber industry during the war.[11] Even in smaller West Virginia cities, the numbers of women in the workplace boomed. In Point Pleasant, a small town along the Ohio River, the number of women working more than quadrupled to nearly 3,400.[12]

These new jobs gave many Appalachian women an income never before experienced. Jeanne Louden, from Fairmont, WV, worked in metallurgy during the war and earned twenty five dollars a month. In a letter to her daughter, Alice Louden told her daughter with satisfaction, “You could live on $25 a month and eat well.”[13] Predictably most of these women fondly recall the pride of their first paycheck. Alice Rissler of Charles Town, WV received her first thirteen dollar paycheck during the war.[14] Karen Owens from Grant Town, WV earned twenty two dollars with her first check and Selma Row of Fairmont made twenty dollars her initial week on the job.[15] These jobs provided financial hope to women that they may be able to feed their families, buy goods for themselves, and pay off loans. Mary McGinnis euphorically declared, “I felt like I was on top of the world. My own money.”[16] Karen Owens said, “I think that many of the women was glad to be in the workforce because there was such a lifestyle that the women had so, had so many restraints. It kinda lessened their restraints because then they had money and they didn’t have to ask their husband or spouse or whatever . . . it gave them more freedom.”[17] Or in the more practical words of another woman, “I wish this war would go on long enough for us to get our house paid for.”[18]

But the possibilities were just that; possibilities. Certainly new employment for women did fuel a large boost of consumerism. The liquid assets of the average American tripled between 1942 and 1944, from about $50 billion nationwide to around $140 billion.[19] The vast majority of West Virginia women, particularly those married and with children, found that instead of gaining an “independent consumerism,” with which they could buy the goods personally desirable to them, they were hampered by both harsh economic realities of a lingering depression and by an overwhelming “wartime consumerism,” with which women were expected and sometimes required to spend money in such a way to further the war effort. This wartime consumerism stunted the development of any independent consumerism in two general ways – government rationing and the War Bond Drives.

President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Production Board (WPB) in January 1942. Within a month the Office of Price Administration (OPA), under the jurisdiction of the WPB, was authorized to ration consumer goods to enhance the war production effort. Over the course of 1942, the OPA launched four types of rationing that would change the everyday life of the American consumer: Certificate Rationing, Differential Coupon Rationing, Uniform Coupon Rationing, and Point Rationing. These four types of rationing placed consumer limitations on items spanning from gasoline, shoes, tires, sugar, coffee, meat cheese, cigarettes, nylon, and canned goods.[20] Citizens registered for stamps at local schools and within weeks found themselves waiting in long lines for reduced stocks of goods and hopping from one long line to another in order to find any meat, butter, or sugar for their families.[21]

West Virginia women, as with many women across the country, now earned a steady income, but could not spend their money on goods they may want to purchase. Mothers who had the funds to feed their children better, in contrast to the Depression years, dealt with a lack of available foods. Foods that were available often had inflated prices, despite the passage of the Emergency Price Control Act in January 1942.[22] The price of buying apples and bananas rose to such a degree that Alice Louden could only afford to pack her kids’ lunches with celery and carrots. In Fairmont, oranges became more expensive than a steak. But even though families could afford steak, they often could not find it available in stores and thus, many West Virginia homes relied on eating venison, rabbit, and squirrels more so than meat at the grocery stores.[23]

The reduced supply of nylons and cotton also inhibited what women could do with their money. Some women merely experienced the awkward feeling of not being able to buy any nylon hose to wear in public, or the lack of coffee and sugar.[24] Others were forced to walk to work or could not drive their children to participate in school activities because of gasoline rationing.[25] Alice Louden lamented to her daughter, “There isn’t a yard of any kind of white cotton material for dresses anyplace in town, Morgantown, or Clarksburg.”[26] Still others faced harsher realities. Catherine Owens and Jean Spurlock remember that, as teenagers living in Cabell County during the war, their mothers were unable to buy them new dresses because of rationing. To compensate, they made feed sack dresses and wore them to school.[27] Thus, while enjoying a larger abundance of money, the lack of consumer goods meant that West Virginia women had few spending options and commonly had to make do with what they had, just as in the Depression years.

One product in abundance however, was war bonds. The U.S. government used the selling of war bonds as a major resource for financing the war. Government ads, celebrities, magazines, and newspapers all promoted the idea that it was a citizen’s patriotic duty to purchase as many war bonds as possible. Industrialists bought war bonds up to $25000 each and even children saved pennies, nickels, and dimes until they could by a twenty-five dollar bond.[28] Women were inundated with advertisements to use their newly acquired incomes to help pay for the war. One magazine advertisement depicted a woman holding children and staring at a war bond. The caption below read, “War Bonds – the only gift that can hasten the day when HE comes home again.”[29] Volunteers in cities across the state such as Morgantown, Charleston, Wheeling, and Huntington handed out illustrated eight page pamphlets entitled “What Will You Pay for Peace?” instructing women how to save money for the purchase of war bonds.[30] Another war poster displays a mother grasping her frightened young daughter as a German bomber flies overhead. The caption reads, “Before it’s TOO LATE! Buy War Bonds.”[31]

Naturally women in West Virginia and around the country responded enthusiastically to the war bond drives. Some women in Fairmont used as much as a third of their salary to purchase war bonds.[32] Sophie Skrzypek of Wheeling, WV was named the War Bond Sweetheart of her factory for purchasing the most war bonds in her department.[33] Women in West Virginia who worked on farms also contributed to the war effort from their personal incomes by purchasing extra chickens or an extra cow and donating the milk and eggs to the war effort.[34]

While rationing and war bonds depleting much of the income made by West Virginia women, what remained of their income went towards providing basic necessities for their families. Although the Depression still gripped much of the United States until the country entered the war, West Virginia still suffered more than most. State Governor’s Herman Guy Kump (1933-1936) and Homer Adams Holt (1937-1940) held to strict southern conservative democratic values and blocked Roosevelt’s New Deal policies whenever feasible. The result was that much needed relief from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and other New Deal agencies never made it to numerous West Virginia families.[35] By the advent of the war, incomes became more plentiful, but many families in West Virginia found still it difficult to dig themselves out of the economic slump. While families no longer went hungry, they still had no excess income beyond the ability to make ends meet. A number of women simply left West Virginia in search of higher wages. Those who stayed behind did the best they could.[36] Ona Blankenship of Huntington said of her income during the war, “It was for my family, see. So I didn’t buy nothing, really. I had to buy the groceries and such.”[37] Betty Harris of Cabin Creek rode a bus each day to work at a glass plant in Charleston during the war. Although she earned enough to feed herself and her mother, she could not afford to give birth in a hospital and gave birth to her daughter at her home.[38] Peggy Dorsey perhaps summed up the general feeling of women in her state best by saying, “Times were very rough, and I hope I never have to experience it again.”[39]

Indeed, times may well have been very rough for many married women in the Mountain State during the war, but if there was one group who did feel a touch of economic liberation it would have been young, single women who entered the workforce. Although historians have placed much emphasis of the entrance of married women into the general workplace during the war, it seems as though unmarried women benefited the most economically and were able to exercise their own individual consumerism. Selma Row was single during the war and lived at home. She spent her money on clothes and makeup. Other single women followed suit. In fact, nearly every single working woman in West Virginia interviewed said that she spent her first paycheck on a new dress. [40] Karen Owens, despite the pressure from family and friends to spend her spare money on war bonds, would secretly buy new clothes with her money. Her mother forbade her to buy any new clothes but she did so anyway. In order to fool her mother, she would wear an old dress while leaving her house and then put on the new dress after she left. The ruse ended, however, when her mother caught her in Fairmont one night wearing some of her new clothes.[41]

As the war came to a close, the government, businesses, and consumers alike looked to the possibilities of the postwar economy. Because most businesses viewed women’s new role in the workplace as only temporary, advertisements assumed that women’s purchasing interests would coincide with her return to the home and the kitchen. Magazines, newspapers, and radio ads flooded women with ideas of new stoves, refrigerators, and other home appliances.[42] Women were expected to voluntarily give up their jobs, return to their homes, and, instead of dreaming of purchasing new dresses or personal items, to buy objects that will better enable them to become good housewives.[43] A large number of West Virginia women who chose to return from the industrial cities or to remain in their home state left the workforce permanently. Those who chose to stay in the workforce found limited options. In a state dominated by the coal, lumber, and chemical industries, opportunities for women remained scarce. Furthermore, wartime mechanization in these industries led to layoffs and a decrease in the general working population. If a woman wanted to work, she would have to work in jobs traditionally designated for women, such as schoolteachers and secretaries. If she wanted to work in other industries she had to leave the state.[44]

The Second World War gave many women opportunities previously unheard of in American Society. The dramatically improved economic status would eventually lead into the modern women’s rights movements and permanently alter the workforce in the United States. New and better incomes meant new consumer possibilities. Women could now spend money on their own and for themselves. In West Virginia, this individual consumerism was limited to young unmarried women who were not financially burdened with too many of their own bills or children. For the married women and mothers, demands from rationing and their necessary purchase of war bonds resulted in a wartime consumerism that left little room for anything in excess of providing for their homes. Thus, the Redneck Rosies, who left their homes for the workplace were able to play a crucial role in winning the war and providing for their families through their labor and consumerism. The wartime consumerism did not allow for much leisure spending, but it did demonstrate the willingness of women to use their own purchasing power to help win the Second World War while simultaneously helping to pull them out of the Great Depression. For many women around the country, individual consumerism had arrived, but for the women of West Virginia, it would have to wait.


[1] Geraldine Low interview by Matthew Kupeski, 10 April, 2006, South Charleston, WV, tape recording, West Virginia Veteran’s Project, West Virginia University (hereafter cited as WVVP).
[2] See Studs Terkel, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (New York: The New Press, 1984); Michael C.C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
[3] Adams, 115.
[4] Gail Collins, America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (New York: Perennial, 1998), 373-382.
[5] Ibid, 382.
[6] Geraldine Lowe interview.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 1-11.
[9] Charleston Daily Mail, 8 February 1942.
[10] Charleston Gazette, 10 May 1945.
[11] Charleston Daily Mail, 18 April 1942; Charleston Daily Mail, 30 May 1943; Alistair Cooke, The American Home Front, 1941-1942 (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), 29-39.
[12] Charleston Daily Mail, 26 February 1943.
[13] Alice Louden to Jeanne Loudin, 12 August 1944, Louden Family Letters, Courtesy of Greg Loudin, Cheat Lake, West Virginia.
[14] Alice Rissler interview by Chris Binotto, 23 April 2006, Charles Town, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[15] Karen Owens interview by Lauren Kress, 26 April 2006, Waynesburg, PA, tape recording; Slma Madeline Row interview by Lisa Ervin, 20 April 2006, Fairmont WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[16] Mary McGinnis interview by Jamie Killmeyer, 21 April 2006, Morgantown, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Flora Young interview by Eric Dinger, 13 April 2006, Nitro, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[19] Harvard Sitkoff, “The American Home Front,” Barbara McLean Ward, ed., Produce and Conserve, Share and Play Square: The Grocer and the Consumer on the Home-Front Battlefield During World War II (Hanover: The University Press of New England, 1994), 42.
[20] Certificate Rationing handled large items and appliances such as stoves and automobiles. They were distributed on an individual basis of need. Differential Coupon Rationing handled items such as gasoline and were distributed also on the basis of individual needs. Local State Defense Councils determined the individual distribution of these stamps. Uniform Coupon Rationing was uniform across the board and handled items such as shoes, sugar, and coffee. Point Rationing handled foods and these stamps were distributed to every man, woman, and child. See Barbara McLean Ward, “A Fair Share at a Fair Price: Rationing, Resource Management, and Price Controls During World War II,” Produce and Conserve, 79-83.
[21] Ibid., 88-89.
[22] Ibid., 95.
[23] Alice Louden to Jeanne Louden, 5 December 1943 and 18 January 1944.
[24] J.C. Blume Betty Blume, and Evelyn Estep interview by Ashton N. Critchley, 27 April 2006, Fayetteville, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[25] Peggy Dorsey interview by Tim Abraham, November 20, 2004, Mount Hope, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[26] Alice Louden to Jeanne Louden, 12 May 1944, Louden Family Papers.
[27] Catherine Owens and Jean Spurlock interview by Jason Borland, 26 April 2006, tape recording, Huntington, WV, WVVP.
[28] Sitkoff, “The American Home Front,” 44.
[29] Minute Man, Volume 4, Number 19, 15 May 1945, World War II Records, War Loan Drives, West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Library, Morgantown, WV (hereafter cited as WVRHC).
[30] “For Use in the Victory Loan” and “What Will You Pay for Peace?”, World War II Records, War Loan Drives.
[31] William L. Bird Jr., and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 90.
[32] Alice Louden to Jeanne Louden, 6 January 1943, Louden Family Papers.
[33] Sophie Skrzypek interview by Dawn Wimmer, 15 March 2004, Wheeling, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[34] The Clarksburg Telegram, 4 January 1942.
[35] Jerry Bruce Thomas, An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 72-84 and 220-231.
[36] Sophie Skrzypek interview, Peggy Dorsey interview, and J.C. Blume, Betty Blume, and Evelyn Estep interview.
[37] Ona Blankenship interview by Katina Hensley, 15 April 2006, Huntington, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[38] Betty Harris interview by Jelyssa Parsons, 13 April 2006, Charleston, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[39] Peggy Dorsey interview.
[40] Among others see Selma Row interview; Jessie Walker interview by Maureen Hess, 22 April 2006, phone interview, tape recording; Patricia Stimple interview by Joseph Martin, 16 April 2006, Aurora, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[41] Karen Owens interview.
[42] Ward, “A Fair Share at a Fair Price,” Produce and Conserve, 98-100.
[43] Ibid., Morgantown Daily Post, 13 January 1945.
[44] Otis Rice and Stephen Brown, West Virginia: A History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 278-280; see also Betty Harris interview; Selma Row interview; Dorothy Lucas interview, WVVP.

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