Photo above: Dr. Meredith May, Kilgore College history instructor, delivers a speech highlighting the impact of women in East Texas over the last 80 years, including her great-grandmother’s work at Southern Pine’s Pineland Mill in Sabine county. Earlier this month, May concluded the Gregg County Historical Museum’s Summer Lecture Series with “Pine Resin in My Veins - East Texas Women’s History." Her doctoral dissertation focused on the impact of women business owners in the area following World War II.
Rosie the Riveter didn’t just save the war effort — she saved womankind in the process.
Dr. Meredith May, Kilgore College history instructor, recently delivered “’Pine Resin in My Veins’; East Texas Women’s History,” during the Gregg County Historical Museum’s summer lecture series, to a room of socially distanced history buffs – primarily women.
A native of Angelina County, Dr. May drew on the inspiration of the young Caddo woman to encourage her love of local history.
“Angelina is the only county in Texas named after a woman,” May said. “Just as she stepped forward at a pivotal time in the life of her people, women during World War II did this as well.”
In the area referenced as “Deep East Texas” May discovered that more than 50 percent of the workers in the box and handle factories in Diboll during WWII were women. More than 30 miles away, Stephen F. Austin State University shifted gears and opened one of the first Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps schools. By training nearly 2,000 women to do clerical work for the armed forces, they “saved a man to fight.”
Women, largely without hesitation, entered the previously male-dominated workforce making items vital to the war effort. In the Piney Woods, ladders, crates, mop and broom handles and ship lumber left the area in droves. Across the country, metal parts, pipes and gears were created by the legendary “Rosies.” In the U.S. 350,000 women served in some capacity of the armed forces during WWII, May cited.
The apex of women’s work occurred with the end of the war. Surveys discovered 75 percent of women wanted to keep working once the war was over. Of those, 90 percent wanted to keep the job they currently held. The men would not hear of it.
“Women couldn’t really fight this because it was seen as unpatriotic to deny a veteran his job,” May said.
As men came home, the country looked for “a return to normalcy,” May added. “The ideology of gender roles pushed women back into the house; and women were told they should find their fulfillment through home and family.”
However, the idyllic scene began to muddy under the surface. The war brought inflation, and the suburban, middle-class dream came with a hefty price tag. Some women returned to the workforce because two incomes was what it took to fuel a desire for modern conveniences. For others, it was the only way to get out of the deep poverty that entrenched 20 percent of the families in seven out of 12 East Texas counties. As a result, 1947 saw more women in the workforce than there had been in 1944.
“By 1960, one-third of working women had children under the age of 18, in spite of social pressure, low wages and negative reactions,” May said.
Her great-grandmother worked for Southern Pine making toilet seats after her daughter left home, “and had fun working in the factories,” May recalled.
As women began to change the make-up of the workforce, their influence was felt in other ways outside the home. Civil rights and school integration became women’s issues in the late 1960s; then equal rights in the early ‘70s, followed by political positions later in the decade. In 1974, Houston had the largest National Organization of Women chapter in the U.S., and hosted the national conference that year.
From leaders like NASA engineer Poppy Northcutt (the first female allowed in Mission Control), to U.S. Representative Barbara Jordan (the first African-American woman from a Southern state) to Texas Governor Ann Richards (1991-1995), the women of Texas have consistently made decisions that keep East Texas running.
“This region has been at the forefront of the modern shift toward gender equality throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries,” May concluded. “Thus these women hold relevance to national history, as well as local. Their stories barely scratch the surface of their long and rich legacy. Against the backdrop of social, political and economic obstacles, East Texas women have worked together through the course of history to achieve radical change.”
Article and photo by Rachel Stallard/KC