Civil Rights / Cold War
CW Womens Lives 02 Medical Librarians CW Womens Lives 01 Women working CW Womens Lives 03 Checking for Radiation CW Womens Lives 04 Family House Keeper CW Womens Lives 05 Lexington Switchboard CW Womens Lives 06 Working in a bank

Women's Work Experience

During World War II, many Tennessee women were able to get jobs formerly held by men. As men were drafted or volunteered for the armed forces, businesses were forced to hire women to do their work.
Women worked in defense plants, piloted military planes, drove buses, and worked in factories. Some even joined the military. 

After the war, the thousands of returning veterans wanted their jobs back. The government was worried that there would be another economic depression once wartime industries shut down. Women were encouraged to quit work and return to home life or traditional women’s jobs.
Many women wanted to leave the work place and return to the home. The war had gone on for four years. Both men and women were anxious to start living “normal lives.” This included getting married and having children.
Other women had to work to bring in extra money for their families. After the war, women went back to traditional women’s jobs such as secretaries, clerks, waitresses, nurses, and telephone operators. College-educated women often went into teaching. It was difficult for women to get into professional schools for medicine, law, and business.
One woman who fought back when she was refused admission to a professional school was Patricia Hull. She sued Georgia Tech University to enter the PhD program in Engineering in the 1960s. After winning her case, she went on to become the first woman to earn a doctorate degree from the university. She was later hired as a professor at Tennessee State University where she worked for 38 years.
In the workplace, women sometimes faced discrimination. Most people believed that women could not do as good of a job as men could. So even though men and women might do the same job, men were generally paid more money.
Black women were excluded from even these “women’s” jobs. They usually had low-wage jobs, like housekeeping.  Most black women had to remain in the workforce where they brought in extra money for their families. Unlike white women, black women were often expected to work.
By the 1970s, women were becoming more accepted in what used to be a man’s world. There remained many more battles to fight, however. The feminist movement took up many of these challenges and continued the battle for women’s equality.

Picture Credits:
  • Women working at King Manufacturing Company in Bristol, Tennessee, sometime after WWII.  The company made overalls and jeans.  Bristol Historical Association, Volunteer Voices, University of Tennessee Knoxville 
  • Eileen Cunningham and Eleanor Steinke (on ladder) add books to the Vanderbilt Medical Center Library in 1947.  Cunningham, a daughter and wife of doctors, developed a classification system for medical libraries after she started work at Vanderbilt in 1926.  This system was eventually adopted by medical libraries throughout the world.  She continued working at Vanderbilt until her retirement in 1956.  Special Collections Digital Library, Vanderbilt Medical Center
  • A female worker at Oak Ridge National Laboratory checks for radiation levels while other workers remove radioactive material from a carrier block.  Courtesy of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • A 1952 photograph of Ann Polhemus with her family's housekeeper, Mary Lou Richardson.  Mrs. Richardson worked for the Polhemus family who lived in Mascot, Tennessee.  According to Ms. Polhemus, Mrs. Richardson was "a much beloved part of the family."  Image 200-034-005, C. M. McClung Historical Collection, Knox County Library
  • Many women went to work at telephone companies as phone service expanded after World War II.  Here Velma Waynick (standing) watches as operators work the switchboard at the Lexington Southern Bell company in 1950.  Published in the 2005 Henderson County, Tennessee Connections: A Pictorial History by Brenda Kirk Fiddler, photograph courtesy of Evelyn Franklin Reeves
  • Many women worked in clerical jobs such the women in this photograph taken in 1953 at Central State Bank in Henderson County.   Here Austin Bobbitt gives papers to Jean Middleton Threadgill while Lounelle Lewis Hawkes talks on the phone.  Published in the 2005 Henderson County, Tennessee Connections: A Pictorial History by Brenda Kirk Fiddler, photograph courtesy of Kenny Rogers

   Civil Rights / Cold War >>  Everyday Life >>  How They Worked >>  Women's Work Experience

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