There is this iconic scene in the movie “A League of Their Own” when Dottie Hinson (played by Geena Davis) realizes that few people in the stands and media are paying much attention to women’s baseball and chose to catch a ball while doing the splits.
It’s that moment when you smile and think “You show ‘em girl!”
The other day, though, I read something that made me rethink my initial reaction to the scene.
I was reading R. Douglas Hurt’s massive book called “The Great Plains During World War II” and came to a chapter innocuously called “Women at Work.” That seems like a pretty harmless chapter. Well, I spent the next 30 minutes flipping from page to page, shaking my head.
If you spend just a bit of time with history you’re bound to learn something, but this something shifted my worldview.
In his book, Hurt described how women’s worlds changed during World War II. I knew that. Who hasn’t heard of Rosie the Riveter? Men were off at war and women needed in almost every industry. But, do you realize that they weren’t just doing “men’s” work? They were doing it better. Hurt explains:
“In January 1941, the Cessna Airplane Company employed only six women to work in the electrical department. After a month on the job they wired a half dozen instrument panels per day where two men had wired one every three or four days.”
They were way better in this situation. The company attributed their success to their “nimble fingers.”
What I learned as I kept reading was that women, in many industries, were doing work on par or better than men. Even with businesses and industries needing women workers, they still had a great fight to earn the same wages or even be considered for the work. Women who were older than 30, not feminine, married with no children had a hard time finding work. Of course, by 1943 employers couldn’t be picky anymore. Hurt writes:
“Shop foreman, one observer wrote, thought that women older than 30 were ‘too bossy,’ that they created ‘friction’ among the younger women, and that they got ‘surly’ about taking orders.”
The secretary of the Oklahoma State Board of Pharmacy thought women were employable as a pharmacist, but he doubted they could “stand on their feet as long as men.”
And if you were a woman of color, forget getting a job with the highest wages like other women.
That was the thing too. It was all about the wages. Women worked outside the home before World War II, but it was in low paying positions. Waitresses, cleaning women, and other jobs considered “women’s” work. World War II gave women the chance to break into jobs they’d never had before and to earn wages that only men earned before. Imagine the sense of accomplishment. The freedom.
The saddest part of this whole story for me? It was when the men came home, although the end of the war was something to rejoice. Women were expected to put down their tools. Exchange their coveralls for an apron. They had to give up all the accomplishment and independence they’d experienced for five years. Hurt tells us:
“One woman who left a job at an aircraft plant recalled, ‘Society looked down on women who worked outside the home.’”
Not only that, many women were called unpatriotic if they didn’t give their jobs to the boys coming home from war. Some in society worried about the destruction of family life if women didn’t return home.
It is hard for me, a person who has worked and earned her own money since the age of 16, to imagine losing the independence to do that. I’d like to thank the women of World War II who went out and worked harder, performed better and proved that women can do anything—even build a B-17 bomber.
Back to “A League of Their Own.” Dottie and her fellow players were great baseball players. They proved it, but they had to do the remarkable to get any attention. And when the men came back, the league was dissolved. Now, when I watch Dottie do the splits, I’ll think “women can do the remarkable, even build a B-17.”