Slacks and Calluses: Gender and Social Class in the 1940s

1019 words | 4 page(s)

The book Slacks and Calluses tells a story that combines social class and sexism with patriotism. Two women, teachers in their professional lives, decided to work in a munitions factory during their summer breaks in 1943, and learned that the attitudes of their coworkers, both male and female, were negative and resentful. It appeared that women of the middle and upper classes were not regarded as appropriate workers in such settings for several reasons, in particular the fact that they were wearing pants and working alongside lower and working class men. While it was generally considered to be completely acceptable and even expected for lower-class women to work in such conditions, the heroines of this story quickly learned that for the more bourgeois class of women, it was simply not okay for them to dress and behave in the ways that working in a factory requires. This paper will discuss the primary ideas portrayed in the book, with an emphasis on the roles of women during 1940s, the period in which it was written.

Constance and Clara Marie were school teachers who had decided to work in the factory during the summer in answer to a request by the defense industry for exactly that sacrifice; however, they experienced contempt and rudeness from their fellow workers. It was apparently extremely insulting for the men in the factory to not only have these middle-class women working alongside them, but to add insult to injury the women were wearing slacks and demonstrated competence at completing the work. During those times, lower-class women from different racial and ethnic groups were regarded as physically able to work in settings that required hard physical labor. In addition, the teachers were initially quite open about their professional status as teachers during the school term, but quickly they decided that they had more to gain by withholding that information; it simply wasn’t acceptable for white middle-class teachers to engage in such work. In addition, the factory environment was usually all male territory so that the entrée into that turf by two Anglo women who virtually waltzed in and were going to be leaving in three months made their presence even more unwelcome. Although the teachers were motivated to undertake their factory work by a sense of patriotism, ultimately they used their experience to highlight several of the findings that surprised them: the most disturbing one regarded the lack of respect and courtesy that is shown to women who were perceived as being working class. Men were continually sexually harassing them on the streets, and they were virtually ignored when they were seeking services in stores or cafeterias. This behavior appeared to be completely related to their identity as women in pants rather than those wearing skirts, and the perception that they were from the lower classes. Previously, there experiences of being dressed as “ladies” had been completely different. In the factory, because they were working hard and wearing slacks, people made assumptions about their lack of education, social class, questionable morality, and social stability, all of which added up to being treated disrespectfully or invisibly.

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The experience of Constance and Clara Marie in the bomber factory demonstrated that women were certainly not welcome in the traditionally all-male environment of an American factory in the 1940s. The work in those settings was physically difficult, painful, and tiring, and it was not considered to be appropriate for middle-class women to be involved in it. The women worked for 52 hours per week and earned $.68 an hour, and while they were shocked at these conditions, they were also aware that the lower-class people who must work at such jobs had to tolerate these degrading situations with no end in sight. Ultimately, the teachers became strong advocates for the women in the factory to pursue their educations in order to expand their career opportunities so that they would be able to eventually escape from conditions such as those that existed in the bomber factory.

In a sense, it is easy to understand why the other workers in the factory were somewhat resentful of Constance and Clara Marie. Because since they were only there temporarily, they expressed an enthusiasm, interest, and at times, delight at some of the tasks that they had to perform since they knew that their work there would be completed at the end of the summer. They had the luxury of working extra time without being denied compensation for it, and of finding ways to make their job duties more efficient and rapid, all of which contributed to the annoyance experienced by their fellow factory workers. In addition, their work at the factory was one of choice whereas the other factory workers, including women, were there at of necessity and because of limited opportunities. The teachers had the luxury of working there out of patriotism and somewhat of a sense of curiosity while the permanent, full-time workers there had no such choices: they were forced to work in these factories under tough, grimy, painful conditions and were not able to leave at the end of the summer. As a result, it is possible to read about the experiences of Constance and Clara Marie and feel both admiration for their willingness to work under such conditions and to answer the call of patriotism while being able to simultaneously empathize with the reactions of their coworkers. For these two middle-class women, they knew that they would be returning to their professions and dressing in skirts and other feminine attire when August came, and they would be once again treated with respect and dignity. Unfortunately, for the other women in the factory, there was no end in sight to their difficult and nightmarish lives working in physically taxing environments in which they were devalued and disrespected. The teachers who were willing to spend a summer in such an environment worked hard, but in the end, were able to be observers on a time-limited basis, options that were unfortunately not available to their coworkers.

  • Allen, C., & Reid , C. (2004). Slacks and Calluses: Our Summer in a Bomber Factory. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institute Press.

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