(HOST) For Women’s History Month, VPR is featuring stores of Vermont women who made significant contributions to our history and culture, as told by women notable in their own right. Today commentator Ann Lawless tells of the shop women of Springfield, who went to work in the Machine Tool Industry during World War One.
(LAWLESS) Rosie the Riveter lives on as the symbol of women who substituted for men in the industrial plants of World War II. Less well remembered are Rosie’s forebearers, the subject of the book Rosie’s Mom by Carrie Brown.
In the 1840’s a handful of Yankee geniuses created the American machine tool industry in the Connecticut River valley. The villages of Windsor and Springfield made machines that made interchangeable parts. In wartime, this “Precision Valley” made the machines that made weapons and ammunition.
James Hartness, president of the Jones and Lamson Company in Springfield, headed the leading machine tool manufacturing company in the world. In December 1917, with war work increasing and a second draft call looming, Hartness prepared to hire women.
Hartness wanted women of “the highest type of intelligence” and to maintain “the highest social status” for the women in his shops. He sought the daughters, sisters, wives and sweethearts of Springfield’s skilled machinists, the cream of the industrial working class. His preparations included a woman’s rest room supervised by a matron, with a large dressing room nearby, outfitted with a sink and locker for each woman worker. The women enjoyed a basketball team and a suffrage league.
Literate, self confident, well paid and patriotic, the women of Jones and Lamson could look their male co-workers in the eye.
In September,1918, the Springfield Reporter printed Caraola M. Cram’s “Song of the Shop Girl”, expressing her satisfaction with working at J & L.
O happy days that fixed my choice
on working in that good old shop
Through future days, I’ll sing its praise,
I’ll work for premium till I drop.
In the next week’s paper, one R. B. Meyers baited her with the shop boy’s reply:
O happy day, O happy day
The girls have thrown their skirts away;
I’m glad the girls have got the chance
To work like men and wear men’s pants!
But, he asked if
When they land on Canaan’s shore,
Will they wear pants forever more?
Caraola let him have it:
…when we reach fair Canaan’s shore
To dwell in peace forevermore,
If all tradition says is true,
They will put petticoats on you.
In 1919 Congress passed the 19th amendment and sent it to the states to be ratified. Vermont received it after the legislative session had ended, and in spite of the work of the state’s suffragists, Governor Clement refused to convene a special session. The national amendment was ratified in 1920, but Vermont didn’t amend its constitution until 1924.
By the end of World War I, one hundred women were integrated into the J & L workforce of over seven hundred.
But when the war effort was dismantled, in Springfield and all over, women were let go to make room for troops returning to the workplace.
Ann Lawless is Executive Director of the American Precision Museum in Windsor. Our music is by Vermont composer Gwyneth Walker.