Last week I mentioned that I would be doing a SHEnanigans post today, barring something catastrophic. The catastrophic has not happened, but there’s a change in plans anyway. My doubling down on resumes last week has resulted in two interviews: one today and one tomorrow. This is good news for me, but not good for my concentration on anything other than preparing for the interviews. Instead you get a Twitter-supported look at interesting tidbits of history and the lenses through which we view them.
Continuing where I left off in the morning post…
Front of U.S. $1 coin
As much as I enjoy writing about history, I am always aware that I am a white woman who, whether intentionally or not, will always center whiteness. On the occasions I write about African-American history or individuals, I most often do it from the perspective of pointing out what white supremacy has erased, not because I claim to have any particular insight into the personal experiences of African-Americans in this country. This is also why it’s unlikely I will ever write about the history of the Indigenous in the now-United States. White supremacy has erased so much that I wouldn’t even know where to start; worse, it’s quite likely I would make missteps without even realizing it. In general, I am quite willing to stick with listening and learning from others. In light of that, today’s post is a bit outside of my comfort zone, particularly since it is 100% reliant upon U.S. government sources. I write it not to applaud the lawmakers who passed Public Law 110-82, nor the people who are implementing it. I write it as a reminder that White erasure of Natives has been so thorough, so complete, that the smallest government efforts to unerase history can be viewed as noteworthy, and at the same time, as further evidence of the vested interest the U.S. government has in controlling the historical narrative.
A pack horse librarian reads out-loud to a man in the Kentucky mountains; 12 January 1938
When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) was established in 1935, it had the responsibility for creating employment through developing infrastructure across the country. The building projects were concentrated in trades that were largely limited to men at the time, but in 1930, 22% of the workforce was female. Although WPA rules decreed that both husband and wife could not be receiving work through the WPA (this was not pure misogyny but an effort to reach a greater number of breadwinners overall), women needed work too. With many women claiming the head of household mantle, the Division of Women’s and Professional Projects scrambled to find work “appropriate” for women.
For most people, the name WPA brings to mind images of men laboring on highway projects and building parks and schools, but during the Depression, women, too, were heads of households and in need of employment. Work programs for women were first established in 1933 through the Women’s Division of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), and later came under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Some women were placed in clerical jobs or worked as librarians, others went to work canning, gardening, and sewing. Nationally, some 7 percent of WPA workers were women engaged in sewing projects. Sewing rooms could be found in rural areas and large cities alike. (“We Patch Anything”: WPA Sewing Rooms in Fort Worth, Texas)
Original caption: “A girl team working on a center wing section of a B-24E (Liberator) bomber in Ford’s big Willow Run plant. The Liberator is capable of operation at high altitudes and over great ranges on precision bombing missions. It has proved itself an excellent performer in the Pacific, in Northern Africa, Europe and the Aleutians. Ford’s Willow Run Plant, Michigan” (Between July 1942 and February 1943)
In September 1942, President Roosevelt visited the Willow Run plant as part of a cross-country war industry tour. Despite being four months behind where it hoped to be, Ford showcased its bomber and other war materiel that was being produced at other Ford locations. It was a dog-and-pony show put on by the company, but as Roosevelt’s countrywide tour was intended to be a boost to morale, it was a pleasant visit despite Henry Ford’s dislike of Roosevelt (Charles Lindbergh, an American First-er who had resigned his commission with the Air Corps before the U.S. was officially at war, stayed home. He was now employed by Ford as a lead test pilot, to be involved in the shakedown flights of the bombers). If the visit was any indication, 1943 should have been a stellar year for Ford. It wasn’t.
Riveting a center wing section for a B-24E (Liberator) bomber in the horizontal position at Ford’s big Willow Run plant; February 1943.
Last week, we learned that Ford Motor Company, at the urging of Edsel Ford and against the wishes of Henry Ford, decided to get into the airplane-building industry prior to the U.S. entry into WWII. The building of the Willow Run plant was a major undertaking, and getting Henry Ford to donate the land for the plant could have, and maybe even should have, been the high point of the story, with the rest being routine and unremarkable. But expecting the routine and unremarkable when Henry Ford was involved would in itself be remarkable.
Fall panorama of Green Lake near Chelsea, Michigan.
The second part of my Willow Run post will happen tonight; Monday was quite a day (and not in a good way), so there hasn’t been time to get a proper post written. So until I can get the rest of the Willow Run story written up, this is a fall interlude of Pure Michigan.
A small part of the world’s largest one-story war production plant, the giant bomber factory at Willow Run, Michigan. Fixtures in background hold bomber wings during assembly. Ford plant, Willow Run; July 1942.
I’ve written about things related to the auto industry before, but usually from the union perspective or with a union-centric focus. Despite that, I’m not dismissive of the contributions that the companies have made to our country’s history and development, particularly over the course of WWII. They may not have given up the production of automobiles voluntarily or altruistically, but committing their workers’ expertise to creating the arsenal of democracy undeniably made the difference between victory and defeat for the Allied powers. Today I’m providing a glimpse of one production center: the Willow Run B-24 bomber plant built near Ypsilanti, MI.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (center) walks with Kenyan Minister of Agriculture William Ruto (left) and Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai (right) during a tour of the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) near Nairobi, Kenya August 5, 2009. (State Department Photo)
A few weeks ago I saw a random tweet about the progress of a tree-planting initiative in Kenya, similar to this:
Then this weekend, I decided to treat myself and downloaded Chelsea and Hillary Clinton’s latest book, The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience. One of the reasons I went ahead and bought the book is because the description of the book included a mention of Wangari Maathai, a woman “who sparked a movement to plant trees, understood the power of role modeling.” (The Book of Gutsy Women) It seemed like a perfect storm of things I didn’t know…what was Kenya’s tree-planting initiative and who was Wangari Maathai? And as anyone who knows me can attest, I don’t like not knowing things. So today you get my introduction, and maybe yours, to Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.
President Barack Obama salutes while walking down the steps of Air Force One as he arrives in Youngstown, Ohio, to attend a roundtable event with auto workers at the GM Lordstown Assembly Plant, Sept. 15, 2009. The Lordstown plant was closed March 6, 2019 after 52 years of operation.
As a kid growing up in Cleveland, I was aware, even hyper-aware, of any UAW strikes against the automakers. Maybe it was because we got the newspaper delivered everyday, and it was hard to miss the updates. Maybe it was a Midwestern thing and the proximity to so many auto plants. Or perhaps it was because my mother’s cousin worked at the Lordstown plant and was loud and proud in his support of the UAW. Whatever the reason, a strike was a big deal, and the strikes were seen, heard, and discussed whenever they happened. I no longer feel like that’s the case. Even here in Michigan, it doesn’t seem like the current strike against GM is garnering much attention except in UAW families. That’s probably a statement about the decline of auto manufacturing in the state, as well as the decline of unions in general. But this is an important strike, with the very real possibility of being of historical importance. So today it’s going to be seen, heard, and maybe even discussed.