Kyle E. Ciani, Reviews Editor
Slacks and Calluses: Our Summer in a Bomber Factory.
By Constance Bowman and Clara Marie Allen. Reprint Edition: Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999. Illustrations Xviii & 181 Pages. $14.95 Paperbound.
Reviewed by Professor Susan E. Cayleff, Professor and Chair, Department of Women’s Studies at San Diego State University. Cayleff is the author of Wash and Be Healed: The Water-Cure Movement and Women’s Health (1987/1992); co-editor of Wings of Gauze: Women of Color and the Experience of Health and Illness (1993); the Pulitzer Prize nominee Babe: The Life and Legend of Babe Didrikson Zaharias; and Babe: The Greatest All-Sport Athlete of All Time (2000).
Women’s experiences during World War II have been told from a variety of perspectives: women who served in the various distaff branches of the armed forces; those who labored in war production plants; the female kin who sacrificed materially and anxiously awaited word of the fate of their family members; women who maintained homes, raised children, balanced checkbooks and functioned autonomously while men folk went to war; women who worked in various aspects of fund and spirit raising, and those who labored in military hospitals and in war-related office jobs, among others.
Slacks and Calluses provides a rare first-person perspective as the authors recorded their daily work lives during the War years. Constance Bowman and Clara Marie Allen chronicled their daily experiences in the bomber factory nightly after returning home from the swing shift that let out at 1 a.m. They were employed at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft, located in San Diego. And they, like thousand of other women, answered the government’s call to staff the production lines to keep America armed and prepared.
Constance and Clara Marie, like other women war-plant workers, were known at the time as “Rosie the Riveters” because of the-then provocative mix of their femininity and skilled use of power tools. More importantly this “female invasion” into the previously male-dominated realm of heavy industry challenged long-held beliefs about the “place”, capabilities, and “nature” of women. Hence, their well-chosen title, Slacks and Calluses highlights two of the most controversial and gender-bending aspects required by their work. Not only did they “cross over” into the realm of male employment, late night work and knowledge of huge mechanical devices, but of necessity they also assumed the clothing and physical fortitude previously assigned only to men. In the case of physical strength, working-class, ethnic and racialized minority women had long been presumed to be capable of hard labor. But the two protagonists in this text are middle-class Anglo school teachers. Hardly a demographic group that was widely familiar with usurping the male domain in all its mixed glories.
They worked a 52 hour week at 68 cents per hour. Prior to their summer entry into the concrete and metal confines of the bomber factory, Bowman was a high school journalism and English teacher, and friend and illustrator, Clara Marie Allen, a high school art teacher. Allen’s clean line drawings pepper the book with visual commentary to the narrative texts. These drawings are quite nice and each serves to remind the reader of the youth, enthusiasm and sense of adventure the two women felt.
They knew fully well their “summer jobs” would end as the late August heat increased and the natural rhythm of the school year beckoned them back into their classrooms at San Diego High School. But for the few months that they lived in the bellies of the great metal beasts-albeit with the detached eyes of transient observers who know their foray is only temporary-their work lives so dominated their nights and days that nary a mention is made of the exquisite outdoors. Instead, minute detail focuses on the tiny crawl spaces through which they had to maneuver awkward pieces of equipment to be installed, de-icer tubes assembled in underlit and smelly quarters, and windshield wiper blades whose screws had to be perfectly taught and aligned. This lens through which they view American involvement in WWII is its own confined, even claustrophobic, world. The small porthole windows of B-24 Liberators, and the transportation of heavy tool boxes containing the necessary wrenches, hammers and files down the assembly line, provide them rare glimpses of the world outside of the gigantic cavernous innards of the “ships” they are working to assemble.
Bowman and Allen recount their summer of physical labor, defeminization , social class slippage and patriotic devotion in a San Diego bomber factory, 1943. They take turns as narrators, weaving a chiding comradarie between their two voices, and their alter- teacher- identities make for engaging “editing” of other line workers misuse of, and creation of, non-words. In fact, the social class tension caused by their “real work” as teachers is a pervasive theme in the book. After receiving several awed and/or contemptuous reactions, they decide quite deliberately to not “out” themselves as teachers. Towards summer’s (and book’s) end, however, they assume a different posture: they actively encourage women line workers who have not finished their high school diplomas to commit themselves to that goal. This is the clearest example of their consciousness of women’s “plight” if they are unable to achieve education and the self-esteem it fuels.
On the streets and in the shops of San Diego they experienced life as masculinized women because of the uniforms required of them at work. They experienced alarming insights into the chivalry not accorded working-class women. They were constantly assumed to be available sexual prey by men on the streets (only when in slacks; in skirts, they were treated as “ladies”) and quite stunned by the invisibility they projected when awaiting service in a store or lunchroom. Rather than being appreciated for their labor, because they were assumed to be (permanently) working class, undereducated, morally loose and transient workers, they were disrespected and ignored. This rudely awakened the two teachers who had lived orderly lives where their expertise and knowledge had gained them credibility, stature and respect.
The authors’ modest goal: to show you what a bomber production line is really like (Preface) is far exceeded. In fact through their witty diarist entries we see how they adjust to: new ways of telling time (shift whistles replace school bells); resistance and compliance to the ever-present foremen (called Red Buttons by the line workers and uniformly despised); and their growing sense of competence as they show others how to install finicky tubes, wires, and brackets despite their civilian friends’ doubting their abilities. We as readers also watch them become physically tough and aware of aches and pains and bruises while choosing to work despite them.
Yet surrounding their growing personal empowerment and undeniable patriotism there is a “larkish” aspect to their experience because they know it is only temporary. “We came early” [to work] they wrote, “so that we could go for a ride in the overhead crane…and we stayed late so we could walk down to the end of the production line. We were delighted when we had to make a trip to another building to buy tools, have an injury treated or order safety glasses.” (p. 128) In fact, their bubbly enthusiasm earned them reprimands from co-workers who resented the extra minutes they worked for which they did not claim overtime. Similarly, their clever ways to “speed up” their portion of the assembly line irritated their co-workers. They never did become “one” with the working-class women and men whose assembly line lives were not temporary. At times their insensitivity to the nitty -gritty reality of working class peoples’ resentments and limited options is frustrating, yet their naivete is frequently balanced with compelling examples of authentic involvement. Observations like, “There’s many a Liberator in the air today with bits of my flesh clinging to its seventh bulkhead.” (p.137) speaks to the reality of doing manual labor even if the “theory” does not.
As summer’s end approached Constance and Clara Marie left their last shift at Consolidated with a palpable sense of pride; they had done good works towards the American war effort. First published in 1944 and very enthusiastically received, to this contemporary scholar Slacks and Calluses it is not a book brimming over with feminist or social class consciousness, but is unabashedly authentic. The authors were young, navigating their ways through a working world that was as foreign to them as the B-24’s they learned to build. Who emerged from the production line on their last day? Two young women, patriotic, eager to be re-feminized through clothing and work identities. But they were also able to feel that they had been a part of something much larger than themselves. As Constance wrote, “When we looked up and saw one [a Liberator they had helped build], dark and powerful like a great thunderbird-and yet completely familiar to us-we had a very strange feeling in the corners of our stomachs, because that particular Liberator might be one of ours.” Like so many other women who experienced new opportunities during WWII, Bowman and Allen found empowerment through their entrée into the previously off-limits male realm. And, like so many women in America once the War ended, they embraced with satisfaction the script of marriage, home, family, children and grandchildren.
We learn in the 1999 Epilogue that both found contentment in their lives; Clara Marie Allen continued on as a part-time artist for family- and community- oriented events through cards and posters. Constance Bowman (Reid) found her voice as a serious biographer of mathematicians, and an author of non-technical explanatory texts about mathematics.
Slacks and Calluses is an enjoyable book, a smooth read, a vibrant reminder of a time of near-unanimous citizen support for American political strategies and goals. It harkens from an era when the myth of “one America” still held sway. It is also a tale of two women negotiating gender, identity, autonomy and cross-class insights. Fifty-six years later, readers are fortunate the authors put pencil to paper each night upon their return home from the bomber factory. Theirs is a story worth hearing and remembering.