1. Switchboard operators

This photo of switchboard operators dates back to December 1946. Even though these women are barricaded away in their own little room of New York’s famous Empire State Building, their dress would suggest otherwise, as this outfit was quite standard for the time.

melba roy nasa women working

It doesn’t matter that these women are working sunrise to sundown seated on workshop chairs, common practice encouraged a “dress to impress” look. From the diligent operators to their watchful manger looking over them, heels and knee-length skirts were the go-to style.

Capturing this one NYC moment paints a much larger picture of the time as a whole of the expectations that women were to expected to always maintain a “ladylike” appearance.

2. Female firefighters

After the infamous attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 propelled the United States into taking up arms in World War II, both men and women from Hawaii jumped at the opportunity to pitch in and help. The devastating attack left plenty of opportunities for civilians to help the cause.

women firefighters world war ii ww2

Apparently, fires were a relatively common occurrence in storage areas at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, so after these ladies singed up to help, they were assigned to firefighting duties.

For the most part, days consisted of training exercises and offering a helping hand where laborers were shorthanded. But when the time for action came, they readily jumped into the fire (literally and figuratively).

3. Workforce for war

This shot may look like little more than an average “slice of life” picture but, upon further inspection, it’s a beautifully captured photograph of a progressive future.

It may be a small group of people stepping out of a streetcar, but it’s so much more than that.

ww2 women laborers california workforce

What we have here is a group of women in the workforce (1943), commuting to a host of completely different jobs. Stepping out on the left are two women in hardhats while the right side has another laborer in back a woman holding her briefcase.

Different as these positions likely were, if they had a family, they almost certainly shared one commonality of returning home to work a second shift around the house before getting up at the crack of dawn to do it all again.

4. Pilots

These tough ladies look like they’re stepping off their plane and walking straight into Hollywood’s silver screen with this epic pic.

These four women took their contributions in World War II to a whole new level as members of the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs.

london laborers bricks ww2 working

Even the plane they were cruising around in has a pretty awesome name: the “Pistol Packin’ Mama.”

There was no shortage of incredible ways that women contributed to the war effort for the Allied forces, but of the 350,000 American women that joined the military, flying planes from factories to military bases was undoubtedly one of the most direct methods of serving the war efforts.

5. Works Progress Administration

During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration set out to employ millions of unemployed Americans that had a family to support.

As was common of the era, the main focus of the WPA during its eight-year operation was to find work for the man, as they were generally expected to be the breadwinner of the family.

works progress administration great depression women training

That didn’t stop females from pursuing their right to work, as both single and married women made up about 15 percent of the women who found employment relief through the WPA.

Generally, jobs consisted of all sorts of unskilled labor from construction to domestic services, as these women above were being trained for.

6. Bombs with the boys

These women are way ahead of their time breaking down barriers. This photograph, dating back to May 1916, features a French woman front and center (and another in the left corner) working alongside her fellow man to make torpedoes for the navy.

ww2 women laborers california workforce

When World War I broke out, the French military leapt into action, mobilizing to respond to attacks with urgency, which left tons of vacant industrial positions that were every bit as important to keep the military cogs moving smoothly.

Working in bomb factories like this one in Cherbourg were rife with danger, but exposure to this type of risk was a necessary risk to help win the war.

7. Stenographers

The feminist movement has been a long, slow and arduous fight for equality, and a great deal of thanks for how far that has come is thanks to the earliest laborers tasked with brutal jobs.

A photograph from the 1920s depicts a seemingly endless hall of women seated at their desks.

women factory work 1920s labor

Stenographers had to work ridiculously long hours in working conditions that were less than ideal, to put it very nicely. The pay was poor, hours were long and work was mentally and physically exhausting, but it was thanks to these strong-minded women who were willing to push through anyways that we have come so far today.

8. Computer girls

This 1967 article from Cosmo magazine shines a powerful light on women recognizing the individuals who were taking the plunge into the world of computing, that really was not understood by many at the time. This article, “The Computer Girls,” featured IBM systems engineer Ann Richardson.

computer girls workforce women
The Atlantic

What’s striking about these photographs is that as beautiful as Richardson looks while working with her male co-workers, the focus is really on her working WITH the men. In one shot, she’s explaining some numbers to a man while another shot shows men surrounding her to see what she’s working on.

Computers and computing may have been a foreign concept to many in the ‘60s, but this article outlines the fantastic opportunity this presented both for her and all women.

9. On strike

Feminism took a major step forward during the mid-1900s, pushing to take on more labor-intensive jobs. With this new wave of female laborers came a push-back from men, as the influx of women endangered their job security.

Men’s generally resistant attitude to women in the workforce also led to discrimination.

women higher pay wages strike
UMD Libraries – University of Maryland

One of the most egregious inequalities women dealt with through the 1950s and ’60s was the pay gap. Rather than settle for less money and being “content” to work at all, women knew early on that they had to stand up and speak for all of the generations who would follow in their footsteps.

10. Artist on the job

By the time the United States was thrust into WWII, California native Emmy Lou Packard was in the process of establishing a body of work as a printmaker, painter and muralist.

With the chaotic times along the West Coast focused around the different shipyards where war vessels were built, Packard found her own niche line of work.

emmy lou packard ww2 post war artist

Packard worked amongst the four Kaiser Shipyards on the San Francisco Bay in Richmond. Not only was the contemporary artist creating illustrations for the weekly newspaper, “Fore ‘n’ After,” her scratch-board pieces helped reveal an important slice of American history that would have otherwise been lost to time.

Her cutting-edge work depicted patriotism as much as it highlighted the average hard-working American, all ages and races and types toiling away the same.

11. Munitions

The United States wasn’t the only place in North America where women were showing up in droves to enter the workforce to replace the men fighting abroad during World War II.

This picture taken in 1942 shows women working at a munitions plant in Scarborough, Ontario.

women ww2 factory work

Take a long look at the rows and row of diligent workers and notice that there are only a couple of male laborers in the entire factory. So, just as the US experienced a surge of female employment, Canada was having a little renaissance of its own.

Through this terrible event in history, women were able to rise up and demonstrate strength, value and so much more.

12. Human computers

The United Kingdom had a wide array of awesome women forging their way through history in different lines of work. One of the incredible things created by their hunger for success was the Women’s Royal Naval Service. It first popped up in for the First World War and was revived again for the Second World War before merging with the Royal Navy in 1993.

female computer programmers

These women are pictured operating the legendary Colossus, the world’s first programmable electronic computer. The Colossus Mark 1 and Colossus Mark 2 were used to help crack codes during WWII. The female operators, known as “wrens,” outnumbered the male cryptanalysts with a staff of 272 compared to just 27 men.

13. Shipyards

This photograph — taken in 1945 at the Kaiser Shipyards — is a powerful one. The San Francisco Bay was teeming with laborers from all backgrounds, and there was simply no room for segregation justified by petty purposes. Work needed to be done and, as long as the person proved capable, it didn’t matter by who.

emmy lou packard ww2 post war artist

Throw away any preconceived notion that women aren’t every bit as tough as men – these ladies at the shipyard proved their abilities by getting. work. done.

A candid moment captures the solidarity amongst the shipyard, as everyone presumably bow their heads head in prayer. Women stand side by side with white and African-American men alike. Everyone was working for one greater cause, paving the road to progress together along the way.

14. Rosie the Riveter

The iconic Rosie the Riveter depiction of the working woman during World War II became the one of the most recognizable symbols of the era. Clad in blue overalls and hair wrapped up under a bandana, ladies doing the dirty work like these two served as a unique call to arms.

rosie the riveter ww2 women work feminism

“We can do it!” was the rallying cry behind the working woman’s self-empowerment. As men left to go fight in the war, women took to the workforce to manufacture the machines needed to win. There was a lot of faith put into these women, as it was up to them to assemble complicated vehicles like this bomber.

15. Wendy the Welder

Rosie the Riveter wasn’t the only powerful female symbolizing the influx of women in the workforce during WWII. There was also Wendy the Welder (sometimes referred to as Winnie the Welder). No different message here, just another sign of the times that women can kick butt and get their hands dirty.

winnie the welder ww2 women workforce

The last thing on the mind of these three welders is how dangerous their job is, they’re just focused on doing it right. Zoom out to the bigger picture, and we see a laser focus on a macro scale that led to 16 million female to enter the work force just a couple years after Pearl Harbor, all the while taking on more and more responsibility.

16. Peek-a-boo poses

Even when the world was at war and women were rolling up their sleeves to get down and dirty working, America still had its glitz and glam as evidence by the stunning Veronica Lake.

Lake, known for her trend-setting peek-a-boo hairstyle, actually switched up her trademark look to serve as a model of practicality.

melba roy nasa women working

Overseas, Lake was one of the most popular pin-up girls amongst soldiers while back home, she posed as the poster-child of what dangers a woman might run into by not adapting a safer hairstyle while working around heavy machinery. The thought of a dolled up appearance in factories like these women worked was probably worthy of a good laugh to many.

17. London laborers

While the push for female empowerment took off across the United States during WWII, women from across the pond were proving they were capable of carrying out tasks to help the Allied cause.

These women executed the “carrying” part quite literally, as they were tasked with sifting through the rubble after the Blitz that decimated.

london laborers bricks ww2 working

After the devastating bombing by the German forces’ Luftwaffe left enormous stretches of London in heaps of rubble, the British immediately set out to rebuild. These three workers — working in Islington Council — grabbing bricks and rummaging through the rubble for reusable bricks, were amongst the first group of women laborers.

18. Pioneer for progress

While the feminist movement for women’s rights regarding discrimination in the workplace really took off during the 1960s, there were strong females fighting for the cause long before them.

This photo, taken in Chicago in the 1910s, shows a female organizer leading the charge at a labor rally.

woman laborer union strike

Decades before women were fighting for equal pay, this strong-minded woman who worked in the clothing industry delivered a message that is loud and clear, urging her contemporaries to stand up for the treatment they deserve in the workplace.

One of the most striking takeaways from this picture is the dress of the women, shedding light on how long this fight has been going.

19. Computer programmer

Before computing became entirely electronic (as we know today), women were often tasked with operating roles that consisted of redundant tasks.

There’s no doubt about it — working as a computer programmer was an extremely mentally taxing job considering the monotony of crunching numbers, but it wasn’t just carrying out simple tasks by any means.

woman computer programmer
History Extra

Repetitive as the tasks may be, female programmers needed to be well-versed in math to competently execute any tasks at hand.

Even with the intricate knowledge in mathematics required to be a human computer, the discriminatory societal view on women equated this job to being a relatively “uneducated” one, but these women weren’t troubled by simple minds. They were making history.

20. Teachers

One of the earliest lines of work women were able to get was teaching. Ironically, the belief of men that women were incapable of working corporate or government jobs to the same “high standard” as men essentially relegated intelligent women to utilize their knowledge in the classroom.

female teacher classroom
The New York Times

So, while men completely disregarded women’s intelligence in their workforce, they were perfectly fine with women teaching their children. Makes sense, right?

From the United States’s early pioneer days, to the 1960s (when this photo was taken) all the way to now, teaching remains one of the top professions that is dominated by women.

21. Female flight

By no means was it just a small handful of women who were brave enough to take to the skies as pilots during WWII. Over 25,000 women applied to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots, and over 1,000 of those women were accepted and completed training.

ww2 american female pilot

The WASP program was short-lived, closing in December 1944 after just opening in August 1943. Well beyond their immeasurable contributions to the war effort, these women showed that bravery in the face of perilous danger is something that belongs to both sexes.

With all the women in the workforce, female fingers went from assembling planes to piloting them.

22. Coming together

The focus of this 1942 photograph may be of three female laborers, but they aren’t the only women at work. This picture depicts some welders on a break at work, African-American and Caucasian smiling side by side, but there’s something beautiful off-camera too.

women welders african american

The person behind the camera for this snapshot (as well as many other shipyard pics) is the great Dorothea Lange.

Lange was a photographer and photojournalist, who we can thank for her fantastic work documenting the labor of the working women around her. Not only were women boldly entering the workforce in WWII, they were expertly capturing the experience.

23. Needed at NASA

Even though the overwhelming majority of women entering the workforce were taking on an array of blue collar jobs, others were destined to blaze a trail elsewhere. One of those people was Melba Roy, whose genius mind helped forge a new path for women in science.

melba roy nasa women working

Roy was one of the earliest women to work for NASA. She did far more than just work for the space program, though. Her work as a mathematician on satellites in the 1950s opened the door for a career that eventually had her serving as the Program Production Section Chief at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

24. Tupperware

The life of a Tupperware salesperson seems simple enough at a glance, but the business of Tupperware Home Parties was a cutthroat one from the start.

One of the most common ways to get in the biz was by hosting an event or attending a friend’s.

women sales tupperware gifts

Show the right enthusiasm for the product or beam enough positive energy, and the sales person just may see some potential. Without actually being a pyramid scheme though, finding new customers and hostesses for future events was usually done through friends or family, making entry into work possible, but rising through the ranks extremely difficult.

25. Tupperware tear

Although there’s an unfortunate truth. Tupperware sales positions came to represent something of a pink-collar worker stuck in the “pink ghetto” who remains stuck below the “glass ceiling,” the new opportunity to get a foot in the door of the working world marked a momentous occasion.

tupperware part women sales

This new outlet to be a working woman was unlike anything available before. Mothers and wives finally got a chance to step out of the constraints of housework thanks to the flexibility sales jobs offered.

It wasn’t by chance – flexible schedules were intended to assist the women selling the goods as much as easing the mind of the prototypical husband of the time, worrying that a more restrictive job may interfere with her duties around the house.

26. American Women’s Voluntary Services

Women were ready to get a foot in the door to actively work to support the States in any way they could in WWII. Taking a page out of Britain’s book, Alice McClean founded the American Women’s Voluntary Services in 1940.

american womens voluntary services ww2 labor

The AWVS was “non-partisan, non-political and open to all women irrespective of race or religion provided they were loyal to the principles of the Government of the US.”

In other words, women like this one photographed in 1942, were undertaking any type of work available from clerical work to selling war bonds to delivering messages. It may not have been paid, but it was yet another example of women who were ready and willing to get their hands dirty.

27. Welders from all walks

When women began entering the workforce accelerated during World War II, it wasn’t like women were beginning to sporadically pop up around blue collar job sites — they were coming out in droves. Although the 1950s did see a return to the household for women after men returning to their “breadwinner” roles, the outpour of females in industrial occupations was stunning.

women welders world war ii ww2

The look on the faces of these ladies at the shipyard says it all. All of them are decked out in their own unique bits of safety gear, but the one thing they all wear is a beaming smile.

Notice all the men below these welders, as they admire some real working women.

28. Aeronautical engineer

Dr. Christine Darden spent her entire career as a working woman blazing trails for her fellow females as much as she paved the way for African-Americans. Dr. Darden was a pivotal part of a group of NASA employees who helped lead the US through the space race.

dr christine darden engineer nasa

Dr. Darden and her fellow engineers used their superhuman brains for supercomputing: crunching numbers and undergoing heavy research for optimal aeronautical design. While her contributions eventually led to her becoming the first African-American woman promoted into the Senior Executive Service, it helped show women could work in a field where no man has gone before.

29. Woman welder

This strong looking lady — shown happily gazing off in the distance — offers a powerful glimpse at one of so many pioneers who helped blaze a trail to equality.

Rosie the Riveters and Wendy the Welders were meant to represent the every(wo)man. This striking image of an African-American woman shows that “every” was not restricted by color.

african american female welder ww2

This female welder was photographed in 1943 at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California. Despite the segregated state of the United States, the demand for able workers was so high that there was simply no room for harmful prejudice. This proud look suggests that she made the most of her opportunity, as did so many others.

30. Punching out

One of the guys? Pfft, forget the fellas. A 1943 photograph puts this group of girls front and center as they punch out after a long day of working at the shipyards.

It’s only that much better when taking in the striking contrast between the men and women.

women shipyard end shift workforce

While most of the guys have their heads down, exhausted from a long day of labor, these girls couldn’t be any more upbeat. The refreshing image captures just one moment in time that shows how truly prepared women were to take on jobs that weren’t seen as “ladylike” to men.

While the boys are dragging their feet, the girls are dancing right alongside them.