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December 5, 2023

Some Beautiful Black and White Portraits of Female Factory Workers in World War II

The character of “Rosie the Riveter” as feminist symbol, World War II icon and mid-century heroine is ingrained in the American psyche, a symbol of both the war effort and an historic change in the American workplace. In the early 1940s, as women flooded the labor force in order to replace the millions of men who had gone off to war, a wide variety of songwriters, illustrators like the Saturday Evening Post’s Norman Rockwell and photographers effectively invented the archetype on which all subsequent Rosies were based.

Among the photographers who documented this massive and, in a very real sense, revolutionary influx of female workers into traditionally male factory jobs as welders, lathe operators, machinists and, riveters was LIFE’s Margaret Bourke-White.

A pioneer herself, Bourke-White spent time in 1943 in Gary, Indiana, chronicling women handling an amazing variety of jobs in steel factories; some completely unskilled, some semiskilled and some requiring great technical knowledge, precision and facility.

See these women, pride shining from their faces, as well as characteristically marvelous Bourke-White shots of enormous machines and grease-lathered gears that capture the grit and rugged beauty of a factory and its workers in full production mode.

Bernice Daunora, 31, a member of a steel mill’s “top gang” was required to wear a “one-hour, lightweight breathing apparatus” as protection against gas escaping from blast furnaces, Gary, Ind., 1943.

Theresa Arana, 21, took down temperature recordings at draw furnaces, Gary, Ind., 1943.

Katherine Mrzljak, 34, a mother of two, worked with her husband at the mill.

Audra Mae Hulse, 20, was a flame cutter at the American Bridge Co. in Gary. She had five relatives in the plant.

Lugrash Larry, 32, a laborer in the blast furnace department, was a mother of four; her husband was also a mill worker.

Lorraine Gallinger, 20, was a metallurgical observer. From North Dakota, she planned to return there after the war.

Blanche Jenkins, 39, a welder at Carnegie-Illinois, bought a $50 war bond each month. She had two children.

Ann Zarik, 22, was a flame burner in Armor Plate Division. Another image of Zarik appeared on the issue’s cover.

Dolores Macias, 26, Gary, Ind., 1943.

Victoria Brotko, 22, was a blacksmith’s helper. She took her twin brother’s job when he joined the Marines.

Women welders, Gary, Ind., 1943.

Beveling an armor plate for the tanks at Gary Works, these women operated powerful acetylene torches.

Flame cutting of a slab was done by a four-torch machine controlled and operated by one woman. Alice Jo Barker (above) had a husband and son who also worked in war industries.

The “pan man” at Gary Works was Rosalie Ivy; she was mixing a special mud used to seal the casting hole through which molten iron flowed from a blast furnace.

In the foundry of the Carnegie-Illinois Steel Co., these women worked as core-makers. A total of 18 women worked here across two shifts. The core-maker’s functions were like those of a sculptor, and the implements used were trowels, spatulas and mallets. Castings being made in this picture were for use not only at Carnegie-Illinois but at other plants.

Women employees at Tubular Alloy Steel Corp. in Gary, Ind. predominated at pep meeting, 1943.

(Photos by Margaret Bourke-White The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock)


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