Rosie the Riveter–Women Workers in World War II and the Evolution of the “Toastmistress” Club

On this celebration of Labor Day, I was thinking about something to write about the working men and women of America.  I remembered my aunt Mary, who passed away this previous year, and I suddenly knew what I would write about:   the influx of women workers in the aircraft and munitions industries during World War II, a phenomenon encapsulated in a single slogan and icon called “Rosie the Riveter.”    By the end of World War II, one out of four married women were working outside the home.     They made up 65% of the workforce in the aircraft industry, and were also numerous in the munitions industry.

Rosie the Riveter

I saw the documentary “The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter” in 1980 when I was enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.    At one of our family reunions down in St. Louis, where the Chicago branch of the Rowley family (my Dad’s family) met the St. Louis branches (the family of my Dad’s sister Mary and his brother Bill), I mentioned to one of my cousins how interesting the documentary was.    My mother overheard the conversation, and I asked me to talk to my Aunt Mary about it.

She smiled when I mentioned the film, and she said, “I was one of those gals.   I worked in a munitions factory in St. Louis.”   My Dad was 14 when the war started; she was 17.    When she became 18, she answered an ad for women who wanted to work at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant, which was the world’s largest maker of .30-caliber and .50-caliber ammunition for rifles and machine guns    Her mother didn’t want her to go, because it was not “ladylike” to work in a factory, but Mary thought it would be a great adventure.    And it was …

The plant turned out cartridges 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the duration of the war.    My aunt ate in the in-house cafeterias, and rode special “Cartridge Plant” buses to work.    She was a good worker; her foreman George admired her work and maybe a little bit more than that …

They soon started falling in love but would not let their relationship known to anybody until after the war.   Having women work in the factory was one thing, but marrying the foreman would have crossed a line too far.

When she was laid off at the end of the war, she ended up staying at home and being a housewife and then a mother, but the great personal satisfaction she had looking back on her brief working career made her hanker to go back to work.    And then in the 1960s, when her boys had grown, she decided to go to work in a bank.    I cannot remember which one, but she quickly showed her abilities as a teller and was promoted to be the first female bank manager of that particular bank.

 One time when the managers were finishing up a meeting, one of them said “we’d better get going to the Toastmasters meeting.”   She asked what Toastmasters was, and was told it was a professional club that taught public speaking and leadership skills.    “Can I join?”, she asked naively.    “Honey, ” said her boss, “it’s for men only–it’s where we get a chance to get away from our wives and our secretaries.”    As she left the meeting room a bit disappointed, one of the secretaries who took notes at the meeting said,  “hey, Mary, wait just a second.”    After the men filed out of the room, the secretary said conspiratorially, “I heard that there was a group just for women called Toastmistresses.   You should check the paper and see if they have a meeting.”    Mary did that and found that there WAS a Toastmistresses chapter in St. Louis.    Now, Toastmistresses had no official connection to Toastmasters, an organization founded back in 1924 by Ralph Smedley in a YMCA building.    But many women, who like my aunt Mary, had been in the work force in World War II as “Rosie the Riveters” were now returning to the work force and showing themselves to be capable professionals in what was still, however, mostly a man’s world.    So they created the Toastmistress organization for professional women to gather together and work on their public speaking and leadership skills in the same way that men were doing in Toastmasters.
Helen Blanchard, a woman who worked at the U.S. Navy  Research and Development Center in Point Loma, CA, wanted to join Toastmasters in 1970, but was told that it was an all-male organization.   However, when she went to a club and spoke, the men in the club saw her potential and two weeks later, she received a phone call from the President of the club saying that he had discussed it with the members and they had voted to accept her as a member.   However, to pass muster with Toastmasters International, they put “Homer Blanchard” on the application form in stead of “Helen”.
When news got out that there was a club that had accepted a woman, this ignited a firestorm of controversy which lasted until 1973, when the organization agreed that, from that point forward, Toastmasters International would be co-ed, but any clubs that had existed prior to that date could vote on whether to retain their men’s-only status or not.   Most chose to allow women in the group.
When I went to my aunt Mary’s funeral, there were several tableaux of photos from various parts of her life, as a child, as a mother, and as a grandmother.   But there was one tableau of photos from her professional career–pictures of her at the St. Louis Ordnance Plant looking very much like the “Rosie the Riveter” women I saw in the documentary, pictures of her career as a bank manager, and then the various awards she got at Toastmasters over the years.    She had joined in 1973, as soon as it became co-ed, and had gone as far as to be a District Governor, and had several awards for having won various speech contests.    She kept all of those mementos until the day she died, which meant that being a working woman, a professional, was as much a part of her identity as the other roles she had played in life.
I’m so glad that when I joined Toastmasters in 2010, I would tell her about my various positions I had held, and how I was moving up in the organization.    I’m sorry that she didn’t live long enough to see become a Distinguished Toastmaster like herself, but when I talked to her, she almost took great interest in my accomplishments because it took her back to the days of her own accomplishments, and she was happy that she could pass the Toastmasters torch to someone in the family.    Once women like her were put in the work force, it was hard to get them to scale back their ambitions after the war, and one by one, they came back out of the home and into the work place, many now in boardrooms rather than factories,
God bless the Rosie the Riveters of this country, who helped us win a war and who, in doing so, won a sense of pride they would hold onto for the rest of their lives!

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