Research

“Black Women Workers in the World War II Shipyards of Portland and Vancouver”
Tessara Dudley and Dr. Shirley Jackson (faculty mentor)
History Department, Portland State University

World War II was a time of great flux for the United States. To take advantage of lucrative defense jobs, workers migrated to the cities and towns that grew around a wide array of defense industries across the country. For Black women migrants, the war represented an opportunity to escape private domestic service and find more fulfilling careers. While these women were able to make substantive gains in some parts of the country, migrants to other areas found little success. In the Pacific Northwest, a combination of community animosity and labor union obstructionism effectively blocked most Black women from accessing war work. This research examines Black women migrant workers in the World War II shipyards of Portland and Vancouver to reveal the specificity of experience at the intersection of race and gender during this crucial moment in the country’s history. Countering the myth of labor shortages, this work shows the lengths to which unions and employers went to keep Black women workers out, creating divisions in the Black community and hindering the war effort. Rather than gaining fulfilling work, Black women workers in the Portland-area emerged from the war largely restricted to the same kinds of devalued work they had done before the war boom.

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