Working Mamas of Indiana's Past

By Susan Sutton, the Director, Digitization at the Indiana Historical Society and Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana History Center

I've been working in a photographer's collection from the mid twentieth century lately and found a lot of working mothers---Rosie the Riveter's colleagues. Many of these women had not had jobs outside the home or did not expect to have them after they were married. By 1945, nearly one out of four married women worked outside the home. Of course, they collected less than 50% of the pay men did for the same work.

They are the mothers and grandmothers of today's working women. Mixed messages abounded for them as they often do for women now. The government encouraged women to take jobs left vacant by men off to fight or new jobs created by the war. They promised childcare centers, played on patriotism, and reminded women that they would be helping to support the efforts of their absent husbands. Society often claimed they were irresponsible and uncaring mothers who left their children in the hands of others, that they were doing the work for the extra money, or even that they were loose women looking for other men while their husbands were away.

Looking at these photographs I marvel at how many women did stick to their resolve to fill necessary positions for whatever their personal reasons. There is a great book titled The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Though it is centered on the top secret nuclear plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, it tells a wider story of women at work during the war. Just as it is now, there were multiple and complex reasons why women went to work outside the home during World War II. Of one thing I am certain though, they helped pave the way for working women now.

Our grandmothers and mothers taught us that we could have careers and that our children would benefit rather than suffer for it. They taught us that equal pay and respect are rights worth fighting for. Widowed in 1941, my maternal grandmother went to business school and got a job working for the OPA (Office of Price Administration). She supported the war effort and her long career put 4 of her 6 children through college. They helped win more than one war.

Larry Foster Collection,7773; 1944

Larry Foster Collection,7773; 1944

As an industrial city, Indianapolis was in a great position to aid the war effort. Women at Kahn Tailoring made military uniforms. 600 employees participated in the $100 bond plan. They gave a portion of each paycheck to the war effort. (Larry Foster Collection,7773; 1944)

Larry Foster Collection,7198; 1943

Larry Foster Collection,7198; 1943

Bombsights and ammunition were also made here in Indianapolis with women providing a lot of the work. Here, women assemble cartridge shells.

One very intriguing item was made at U.S. Rubber. Self-sealing fuel cells were hard sided fuel tank liners for B-24 Liberators. As anti-aircraft fire penetrated the fuel tanks in the wings, it could cause catastrophic fires. The tank liners sealed the holes created by the bullets depriving resulting sparks of fuel and preventing fires. Here, women put the final touches on fuel cells before crating.

Larry Foster Collection,7973; 1944

Larry Foster Collection,7973; 1944

Childcare is an important part of any working mom's life and there were several facilities opened in Indianapolis. The Indianapolis Emergency Day Care Services, Inc. opened ten large nurseries around the city. Pictured are children from the P. R. Mallory Nursery outside the Evangelical Lutheran Orphan Home.

Larry Foster Collection,8878; 1944

Larry Foster Collection,8878; 1944

CareerSuzanne JoyceComment