World War II represented a turning point for women’s employment in the United States. While women, especially unmarried women, had increasingly taken jobs outside the home since the turn of the century, most worked in service and clerical positions. In the early 1940s, however, wartime production combined with labor shortages to open new opportunities for women in high-paying industrial jobs.
Many of these jobs required moving to the Pacific Coast, but Montana did have its own version of “Rosie the Riveter” laboring in the smelters of Anaconda and Great Falls. Working in production and industrial maintenance positions for the first time, these Montana Rosies broke economic and social barriers. Their gains, however, were short-lived. Considered a temporary expedient rather than a permanent workforce, women were quickly pushed out of industry after the war, and their experiences foreshadowed the conservative gender expectations that women encountered in the 1950s.
Demand for Montana’s minerals skyrocketed during the war, largely because copper, zinc, manganese, and other Montana-mined minerals were key ingredients in munitions and machinery. As men joined the service, the Anaconda Copper Mining Company struggled to find workers, and as labor shortages became more acute, the federal government pressured the company to employ nontraditional workers, including women.
The move met with resistance. Union officials and copper workers argued that women could not work in mines or smelters because they lacked the physical strength and stamina to do the job. Additionally, some men feared the loss of masculine power if women entered the industrial workforce. A 1942 Anaconda Standard editorial, titled “The Amazons among Our Women,” mourned shifting gender roles: “[W]e used to think, with an air of fancied superiority, that woman’s place was in the home while the man was the self-reliant and sturdy breadwinner of the family. . . . If the present trends keep up, men some day may be the nursemaids, tending the babies while the women run the world. . . . May it all be merely a fanciful dream.”
Despite these fears, in 1943 Anaconda did begin hiring women in smelter positions, a move that many women, enticed by the high wages, welcomed. Ursula Jurcich remembered: “Everybody was talking about it, ‘oh the women are working on the Hill.’ That was a big ‘baloo’ around here . . . so I thought I might as well go and see if I can get on. . . . The money was big, that was important. They were paying $7.75 a day.” Katie Dewing, working as a waitress at the time, also applied because the smelter paid “good money.”
Women worked in a variety of positions throughout the smelter, from picking up debris to bending wire to oiling machinery. Many of the women expressed pride that they could hold their own doing “men’s work.” Ursula Jurcich recalled that smelter work “wasn’t any more strenuous than housework.” Dorothy Anderson also joked that work in the smelter compared favorably to other women’s work. She left a position wrapping donuts at Sweetheart Bakery—work that gave her carpal tunnel syndrome—for a job moving anodes at the Black Eagle Smelter near Great Falls. “I used to think that it would be a hard job out there,” Anderson recalled. “These men that go out and work all day, they have to be coddled and everything else at night ’cause they’re so tired ’cause they worked all day. Heck I wasn’t tired when I came home from doing that job.”
Many men at the smelter came to appreciate the women’s stamina. Tom Dickson recalled the story of one “girl” who was helping stack sixty-pound zinc slabs. “A guy came by and saw her handling these slabs,” Dickson recounted, “and he said, ‘You know you girls aren’t supposed to lift anything over 50 pounds.’ She said . . . ‘OK then, to hell with it.’ And she wouldn’t do it anymore! But they performed very well, I thought.”
Although women proved their mettle, most men and women considered smelter work a temporary wartime expedient. After the war, women were expected to relinquish their positions and return to the traditional female roles of wife and mother. According to historian Matthew Basso, women’s temporary foray into masculine labor paradoxically “did more to reveal the sustainability of Black Eagle’s entrenched patriarchal value system . . . than to catalyze change.”
Some women accepted that war work was temporary. Dorothy Anderson worked at Black Eagle during the war but felt that women did not belong at the smelter during peacetime. “[Women’s] bodies are not made for that heavy kind of work,” Anderson argued. “I had a home to go to and I felt that is where I belonged.”
For other women, wartime industrial work sparked small—but important—changes: many continued to wear pants instead of skirts and even stopped by a bar from time to time. Erma Bennett suggested that women took what they learned from working in the smelter and “kind of passed it on” to their daughters. Most remembered their work with pride. When asked whether she had a college education, Julia Francisca said, “Oh yes, I finished high school and went on to college—‘The Copper College.’ It was the only place I knew of where you could get an all-around education and get damn good pay along with it.” AH
Are you interested in women’s work during wartime? Read Like Father, Like Daughter: Women Who Worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad to learn more about women who found new employment opportunities during World War I.
For women’s war time service, read Merle Egan Anderson: Montana’s “Hello Girl” to learn about telephone operators in World War I. For women who served during World War II, read “You Have to Take What They Send You Now Days”: Montana Women’s Service in World War II.
Merle Egan Anderson was not the only Montana woman to fight for recognition of women’s military service. Read Doris Brander and the Fight to Honor Women’s Military Service to learn more.
Basso, Matthew L. Meet Joe Copper: Masculinity and Race on Montana’s World War II Home Front. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Furdell, William J. “Montana Episodes: The Great Falls Home Front during World War II.” Montana The Magazine of Western History 48, no. 4 (Winter 1998), 63-75.
Goldin, Claudia. “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment.” American Economic Review 81, no. 4 (September 1991), 741-56.
Kossoudji, Sherrie A., and Laura J. Dresser. “Working Class Rosies: Women Industrial Workers during World War II.” Journal of Economic History 52, no. 2 (June 1992), 431-46.
Mercier, Laurie. Anaconda: Labor, Community, and Culture in Montana’s Smelter City. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.
_____. “‘The Stacks Dominated Our Lives’: Metals Manufacturing in Four Montana Communities.” Montana The Magazine of Western History 38, no. 2 (Spring 1988), 40-57.