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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Lucy Somerville Howorth, June 20, 22, and 23, 1975. Interview G-0028. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Working for the war industry and gender discrimination in the workplace

In this excerpt, Howorth describes how her work with the Allied Bureau of Aircraft Production during World War I offered her a glimpse into gender discrimination in the workplace. Because women were not allowed to work as gauge inspectors under the United States Civil Service Rule, Howorth explains that the Allied Bureau was funded by America, but organized and operated by the British so that women could work as gauge inspectors. Here, Howorth describes one incident in particular where a male supervisor berated a group of women. Howorth nearly left her job because of this blatant gender discrimination, but her complaints to the head supervisor garnered an apology and a less discriminating work environment for the duration of her employ there.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Lucy Somerville Howorth, June 20, 22, and 23, 1975. Interview G-0028. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

CONSTANCE MYERS:
Was this for a company or for the government?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Yes, it was one of my first experiences in the handicaps and foolishness of the treatment of women. This was an Allied Bureau of Aircraft Production. The United States, in its usual fashion, put up the money and the British ran it. Under the United States Civil Service Rule, women could not be employed as gauge inspectors. That was reserved solely for men. Here we were in the middle of a war and the active men were in the army and they needed this very much. So, we were employed, all these women, by the British and then the payroll was transferred to the United States and we went on the payroll as British employees and nobody checked to see whether we were men or women.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Where was the plant, where were you doing this work?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
We were doing this work in New York City.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
In what location?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
The first location was down near Wall Street, in what they call a loft, and we were divided in sections that did different parts of the process. Then, we moved up to much pleasanter quarters in Abercrombie and Fitch, the fourth floor, I believe. The second or fourth floor. They weren't doing much business during the war. The point about having a central inspection of gauges is that that was how mass production was possible. The Greenfield Tap and Die Company could make a gauge, a screw or a bolt, in Greenfield, Massachussetts, which I think is where it is, and then that could be used on a part of something that was made in Ohio if the gauge, the screw and the bolt fitted the place on the machinery and consequently, every ten thousand or some figure, was pulled from the mass and sent to us to check. Now, they had about six different processes in the checking because you had to have those measurements to a ten thousandth of an inch.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Great exactitude.
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Yes. And the man at the head of it was an Englishman who was later knighted. He was Mr. Bingham Powell and then he was knighted and was Sir Bingham Powell. He was one of the most charming men I have ever met. Under him was an Australian, who was a very fine man and also quite attractive, but not quite with the elegance of Sir Bingham Powell. Then, the supervisors were the rough and tumble industrial types who wore shirts and ties and tried to look like gentlemen, but were on the crude side. So, I will give you another feminist incident. After the war was over, that is the Armistice, we didn't anybody take much interest in this business, because we knew that it was all going to blow up pretty soon and all close down . . . the dressing room facilities were very limited and so the women started a little early to go and freshen up to go out to lunch. So, this thuggish type who was over the room I was in decided that he would put a stop to that kind of thing. So, he called them all in one day just as we were about to go to lunch and gave a very rough talk about how he wasn't going to put up with that business anymore. Well, it just riled me. Nobody had ever talked to me in that kind of language before and I didn't like it, I thought that it was unjust. If he wanted to say something about it, he could have sent a memo around about please not to getready for lunch too soon, the type of thing that any good supervisor would have done. It was the sort of thing that all of them have to do, and even as mad as I was, I recognized it. Well, after I cooled down a little, I went out to lunch and I missed my appointment with my friend who was in another division and so I paced the streets, I was just burning with fury.
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Southern sensibility.
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Southern sensibility, feminine sensibility, all of it rolled into one. So, I paced the streets of New York and I went to an employment office and enrolled or enlisted for a job. This woman was alert and interested and said, "Well, here is one that I can send you right now." It was McGraw-Hill, to be an editorial assistant. So, I went there and this woman was sensible and she said, "Are you sure that you want to leave?" "Well," I said, "I think I am." She said, "I'll take you on, but you think about it and come back in a day or two after you have thought about it." So, there I was, I had gotten myself a job and I went back to the office and went into this Australian's office, Mr. Sutherland he was the superintendent of the whole thing, you see, under Sir Bingham Powell. I asked to see him and he asked me to come in and said, "What's the matter? What's on your mind?" So, I told him that I had come in to resign. "Well," he said, "Why?" He said, "Of course, we aren't going to operate long, but I want it to be an orderly liquidation. What is the matter?" I told him and he said, "Oh, I'll get him in here and make him apologize." I said, "No. It wasn't a personal insult, it was an insult to every woman in that room." He said, "All right, I'll make him apologize to the whole room." He said, "You go on back to your desk." So, he called that man in and I guess that he really laced him down and they both came back up and asked for the attention of everybody and the man gave an apology. Mr. Sutherland said that he recognized that the facilities were limited and they wished they could be better. . . .
CONSTANCE MYERS:
Was Mr. Sutherland the Australian?
LUCY SOMERVILLE HOWORTH:
Yes. And he said he hoped that everybody would do the best they could under the circumstances and that as long as we worked together we would be happy.