Two recent exhibits celebrated historical aspects of Connecticut women who worked and now work in heavy industry.
All in a Day’s Work:
Photographs of Women in Connecticut Industry from the collections of the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center
Women in Connecticut have a long and rich history as workers. Their traditional place was in their own homes, where nearly all household goods and services produced were done so through women’s labor. The Industrial Revolution ushered in a new role, that of paid worker, and women entered the workforce in significant numbers. Economically disadvantaged women augmented their household income by working in the textile mills and industrial factories that proliferated across Connecticut. By 1900, 1 in 5 females over age 10 were paid workers, and 25% of them worked in manufacturing.
The influx of southern and eastern Europeans between 1880 and 1920 to Connecticut brought thousands of immigrants into the workforce, including women, eager to contribute to newly established households. As did their American-born counterparts, immigrant women employed in manufacturing faced grueling workdays, hazardous working conditions, and substantially lower pay than men. Yet, work brought with it a sense of empowerment and wage-work provided the immigrant woman a new found freedom that was often not tolerated in the old country.
War accelerated opening the gates to women’s work in industry. During World War I the need for war goods and the absence of men of fighting age gave women new opportunities. But the gains did not last. After the war, returning soldiers expected their jobs back and there was enormous pressure for women to return to their domestic sphere. Most of them did. That pressure remained through the Depression when national sentiment strongly favored men holding the few jobs that were available.
World War II again brought women into industry in large numbers, many becoming skilled factory workers in jobs previously held only by men. The prohibition of married women holding paid jobs faded only as women reassured the country that they were still maintaining their homes and families. The home was still very much the woman’s responsibility, but it was increasingly possible for women to hold down a day job as well.
African-American women forged an alternate path in the workforce. In the late 19th century African-American women worked outside the home in higher percentages than white women, but they were less likely to gain employment in factories. Most worked in agriculture or as domestics. Manufacturing jobs were for the most part racially segregated until the Civil Rights era.
About the Photographs
The photographs in this exhibit were from the Business History Collections in Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center of the University of Connecticut in Storrs. These collections illustrate Connecticut’s rich history as a leader in business and industry, and represent the diverse nature of the state’s industries, ranging from textile mills to complex technology. Many of the companies had their start as family-owned and operated small businesses and evolved into nationally known producers of such products as brass, hardware, machine tools, cutlery, clocks and watches, silk and other textiles, and toiletries. The collections are composed of a wide variety of materials including administrative and financial records, maps and facilities drawings, and advertising samples, as well as thousands of photographs depicting the diversity of workers and their work.
“We Can Do It”
was a short video slide show highlighting women who worked in Hartford area defense industries during World Wars I & II. Produced by the Trecker Library, it saluted both the “All In a Day’s Work Exhibit” and also the fact that UConn’s Hartford Campus played a significant role in the education of thousands (literally) of men and women moving from civilian to defense occupations during the war years.