Born c. 1922
"The first work I had after the Depression was at a shell-loading plant in Viola, Kentucky. My mother, my sister, and myself worked there."
Prior to World War II (1939–45), women usually only worked outside of the home following the completion of their education until marriage. However, as twelve million men joined the military in the early 1940s, critical industrial jobs faced a worker shortage. Peggy Terry was one of nineteen million women who found work on the home front during the war years. Not only did the work vastly improve women's personal financial condition, but it opened the doors much wider for the acceptance of women in the workplace in America.
An early life of need
Peggy Terry was born around 1922 to a family that lived in poverty for most of her early years. Her mother was born in Kentucky and her father in Oklahoma. Her father fought in World War I (1914–18) as a machine gunner and was left emotionally scarred from the experience. Peggy was born only a few years after the war. For the next fifteen years, the family moved back and forth between Kentucky and Oklahoma. While living in Oklahoma between 1929 and 1936, they experienced the worst of the Great Depression (1929–41). The Great Depression, beginning in the fall of 1929 and lasting through the 1930s, was the worst economic crisis in U.S. history. Close to a quarter of the nation's workforce was unemployed. Many Americans did not have enough food. For those in Oklahoma and other parts of the Midwest, the Depression also included surviving the severe drought years of the early 1930s. The region became known as the Dust Bowl.
By 1937 Peggy's father lost his job, so they returned to Paducah, Kentucky. In Kentucky her father worked at times in the mines and was active in the workers' unions. Peggy married around 1937. Her husband, Bill, worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA), digging ditches for city water lines. She was fifteen years of age and he was sixteen. For the next three years they traveled around hitchhiking. Peggy was expecting their first child while on the road. They found jobs as migrant workers, picking oranges, grapefruit, and lemons in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.
Work comes to the home front
Peggy and Bill had returned to Paducah when mobilization of industry for war began in 1940. She was eighteen years old and her husband was nineteen. Her mother, a sister, and Peggy found jobs at a shell-loading plant in Viola, Kentucky, not far from Paducah. They worked different shifts at the factory so they could take care of children at home. After having no steady income through the Great Depression years, the thirty-two-dollar-a-week job seemed a godsend. They could once again buy new clothes and shoes, pay rent, and regularly put food on the table. It was the first job other than agricultural fieldwork that her mother had ever held. War mobilization on the home front brought a vast improvement to their lives.
Most Americans could not recite the formal reasons President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) had given for going to war. They just knew that war involving the United States had been declared in some far-off location. They were essentially protecting the way of life that they knew. Peggy Terry was no different, particularly since she did not even have a radio in order to keep up with current events. Despite their disconnection, many Americans knew that the Germans and Japanese were their enemies. They were particularly suspicious of the Japanese, whose racial and cultural differences made European Americans uncomfortable. Terry saw local people destroy any items they owned that were made in Japan.
Rosie the Riveter
Women like Peggy Terry who worked in America's factories during World War II (1939–45) attracted considerable national attention. At the time, it was thought a novelty for women to work in industrial jobs. Labeled "Rosie the Riveters," they worked in aircraft construction, shipbuilding, munitions manufacturing, and other related war industry jobs. They became glamorized in the media and the subject of posters as doing their part for the war. Noted artist Norman Rockwell (1894–1978; see entry) created the most memorable depiction of Rosie for the cover of the May 29, 1943, issue of The Saturday Evening Post (see photo on page 161).
Prior to the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941, few women worked in industry. By early 1944, 2,690,000 women were employed in the war industries. They comprised nearly 35 percent of all industry workers in the United States. No longer could people claim that women could not do mechanical work.
Thousands actually did work as riveters and welders in the war plants. Hundreds of thousands of women worked in shipyards across the country riveting sections of ships together. However, they worked in many other kinds of positions as well. At munitions factories, like the one where Peggy Terry first worked, women operated machines that made gun parts, and they wired fuses for bombs and filled bullets with powder. Others greased and painted gun barrels in their final production before shipment overseas to the battlefront. Terry next worked in the aircraft industry. At many aircraft plants, such as Douglas Aircraft, more than 40 percent of the workers were women during the war. Like Terry, many women moved beyond assembly line work to testing the airplane's systems. In steel mills, women rebuilt furnaces. It was found that women, because of their smaller hands, were often better able than men to assemble tiny parts in machine shops for precision aircraft instruments.
The Rosie the Riveter symbol lived on for decades, later representing the extensive role women played in the American home front war effort. When the war ended, millions of men returned from active military service seeking jobs. Women, especially those in the traditionally male-oriented factory jobs, were commonly among the first workers laid off as industry cut back war production and transitioned to producing consumer goods again. Most women employed in aircraft, shipbuilding, and munitions manufacturing during the war were quickly let go after the war.
Terry also saw the hazards of factory work in a war industry. There were explosives, detonators, and hazardous materials, such as chemicals used in the explosives and cleaning substances used in the final production stages. Terry recounted how many women came away with their hair, skin, and even eyeballs discolored from the persistent exposure to chemicals. Some experienced breathing problems from the fumes in the air. Their noses and throats often burned. Though working conditions were poor, Terry knew little of union activities to improve their conditions.
Despite these harsh working conditions, the workers shared a pride in their accomplishments. Terry's munitions factory received a navy award for its efforts. A navy band came to play at the award ceremony.
Work at an aircraft factory
Terry's grandfather worked for the railroads and retired to Jackson, Michigan. After receiving word from her grandfather about the handsome wages for aircraft factory workers in Michigan, Terry moved there. She found a job testing airplane
radios and made ninety dollars a week. It was a big increase from the munitions factory work. In Michigan, Terry discovered a whole different world than she had known in Kentucky. She worked with many eastern European immigrants who were very involved in union activity. Like many Americans, life on the home front as well as on foreign battlefields was a major education. Terry saw a larger world with greater social and cultural diversity. Like other home front workers, her expectations increased about a future life in the United States, including financial security.
While Peggy Terry worked in the factories, her husband, Bill, was a paratrooper in the military. Bill saw considerable action in North Africa, France, and Germany, making twenty-six parachute jumps in all. Like Terry's father from World War I, Bill came back from war in Europe emotionally scarred. He now smoked, drank too much, and at times physically abused the family. Terry claimed she lost her faith in religion because of the war's effects. Many of her childhood friends had died fighting in the war.
Nonetheless, Terry was financially considerably better off than before the war. As so many young brides did immediately following the war, Terry became pregnant shortly after Bill's return from the service, contributing to the phenomenon known as the baby boom. Following the war, Peggy and Bill settled into a small apartment in Chicago, Illinois.
Although most women were laid off from their warrelated jobs soon after the war to make room for returning servicemen, the idea of women in the workplace became more socially accepted thanks to the contributions made by working women during World War II.
For More Information
Gluck, Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
Terkel, Studs. The Good War: An Oral History of World War II. New York: New Press, 1997.
Zeinert, Karen. Those Incredible Women of World War II. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.
Rosie the Riveter and Other Women World War II Heroes. http://www.u.arizona.edu/~kari/rosie.htm (accessed on July 26, 2004).
Rosie the Riveter Trust. http://www.rosietheriveter.org (accessed on July 26, 2004).
"Terry, Peggy." American Home Front in World War II. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-and-education-magazines/terry-peggy
"Terry, Peggy." American Home Front in World War II. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-and-education-magazines/terry-peggy
Women Working in World War II (1941, by Peggy Terry)
WOMEN WORKING IN WORLD WAR II (1941, by Peggy Terry)
Since government programs during the Great Depression had concentrated mainly on creating jobs for men, the outbreak of the Second World War brought tremendous labor shortages to the United States. By 1941, huge numbers were abandoning civilian life to serve in the military, leaving women like Peggy Terry to fill their places. For the first time in American history, millions of women took an active role in war, building bombs, planes, and ships in factories like Henry Ford's massive Willow Run plant outside Detroit which at the height of its production turned out B-24 bombers at the rate of one an hour. Hundreds of thousands more served in women's military auxiliary organizations like the WACs or WAVES. Inspired in part by propaganda posters like the one featuring Rosie the Riveter, a strong, fierce-countenanced factory worker who exhorted her fellow women to "Get The Job Done," the women of the Unites States responded as no one would have imagined possible. At the beginning of the war, the United States was a third-rate military power, barely mechanized and still cocooned in the separatism brought on by the Great War in Europe, but by 1945, it was a dominant global force, producing more weapons, military vehicles, and ammunition than the rest of the world combined.
The first work I had after the Depression was at a shell-loading plant in Viola, Kentucky. It is between Paducah and Mayfield. They were large shells: anti-aircraft, incendiaries, and tracers.
We painted red on the tips of the tracers. My mother, my sister, and myself worked there. Each of us worked a different shift because we had little ones at home. We made the fabulous sum of thirty-two dollars a week. (Laughs.) To us it was just an absolute miracle. Before that, we made nothing.
You won't believe how incredibly ignorant I was. I knew vaguely that a war had started, but I had no idea what it meant.
Didn't you have a radio?
Gosh, no. That was an absolute luxury. We were just moving around, working wherever we could find work. I was eighteen. My husband was nineteen. We were living day to day. When you are involved in stayin' alive, you don't think about big things like a war. It didn't occur to us that we were making these shells to kill people. It never entered my head.
There were no women foremen where we worked. We were just a bunch of hillbilly women laughin' and talkin'. It was like a social. Now we'd have money to buy shoes and a dress and pay rent and get some food on the table. We were just happy to have work.
I worked in building number 11. I pulled a lot of gadgets on a machine. The shell slid under and powder went into it. Another lever you pulled tamped it down. Then it moved on a conveyer belt to another building where the detonator was dropped in. You did this over and over.
Tetryl was one of the ingredients and it turned us orange. Just as orange as an orange. Our hair was streaked orange. Our hands, our face, our neck just turned orange, even our eyeballs. We never questioned. None of us ever asked, What is this? Is this harmful? We simply didn't think about it. That was just one of the conditions of the job. The only thing we worried about was other women thinking we had dyed our hair. Back then it was a disgrace if you dyed your hair. We worried what people would say.
We used to laugh about it on the bus. It eventually wore off. But I seem to remember some of the women had breathing problems. The shells were painted a dark gray. When the paint didn't come out smooth, we had to take rags wet with some kind of remover and wash that paint off. The fumes from these rags—it was like breathing cleaning fluid. It burned the nose and throat. Oh, it was difficult to breathe. I remember that.
Nothing ever blew up, but I remember the building where they dropped in the detonator. These detonators are little black things about the size of a thumb. This terrible thunderstorm came and all the lights went out. Somebody knocked a box of detonators off on the floor. Here we were in the pitch dark. Somebody was screaming, "Don't move, anybody!" They were afraid you'd step on the detonator. We were down on our hands and knees crawling out of that building in the storm. (Laughs.) We were in slow motion. If we'd stepped on one …
Mamma was what they call terminated—fired. Mamma's mother took sick and died and Mamma asked for time off and they told her no. Mamma said, "Well, I'm gonna be with my mamma. If I have to give up my job, I will just have to." So they terminated Mamma. That's when I started gettin' nasty. I didn't take as much baloney and pushing around as I had taken. I told 'em I was gonna quit, and they told me if I quit they would blacklist me wherever I would go. They had my fingerprints and all that. I guess it was just bluff, because I did get other work.
I think of how little we knew of human rights, union rights. We knew Daddy had been a hell-raiser in the mine workers' union, but at that point it hadn't rubbed off on any of us women. Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper were allowed in every building, but not a drop of water. You could only get a drink of water if you went to the cafeteria, which was about two city blocks away. Of course you couldn't leave your machine long enough to go get a drink. I drank Coke and Dr. Pepper and I hated 'em. I hate 'em today. We had to buy it, of course. We couldn't leave to go to the bathroom, 'cause it was way the heck over there.
We were awarded the navy E for excellence. We were just so proud of that E. It was like we were a big family, and we hugged and kissed each other. They had the navy band out there celebrating us. We were so proud of ourselves.
First time my mother ever worked at anything except in the fields—first real job Mamma ever had. It was a big break in everybody's life. Once, Mamma woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and she saw the bus going down. She said, "Oh my goodness, I've overslept." She jerked her clothes on, throwed her lunch in the bag, and was out on the corner, ready to go, when Boy Blue, our driver, said, "Honey, this is the wrong shift." Mamma wasn't supposed to be there until six in the morning. She never lived that down. She would have enjoyed telling you that.
My world was really very small. When we came from Oklahoma to Paducah, that was like a journey to the center of the earth. It was during the Depression and you did good having bus fare to get across town. The war just widened my world. Especially after I came up to Michigan. My grandfather went up to Jackson, Michigan, after he retired from the railroad. He wrote back and told us we could make twice as much in the war plants in Jackson. We did. We made ninety dollars a week. We did some kind of testing for airplane radios.
Ohh, I met all those wonderful Polacks. They were the first people I'd ever known that were any different from me. A whole new world just opened up. I learned to drink beer like crazy with 'em. They were all very union-conscious. I learned a lot of things that I didn't even know existed.
SOURCE: Terry, Peggy. From an interview in "The Good War": An Oral History of World War Two. By Studs Terkel. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.
"Women Working in World War II (1941, by Peggy Terry)." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 15 Dec. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.
"Women Working in World War II (1941, by Peggy Terry)." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 15, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/women-working-world-war-ii-1941-peggy-terry
"Women Working in World War II (1941, by Peggy Terry)." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved December 15, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/women-working-world-war-ii-1941-peggy-terry