By Carolyn Lochhead
WASHINGTON — Applying for a welding job at the Richmond shipyard during World War II, Agnes Moore dressed in her best black suit, with matching kid gloves, patent leather shoes and a hat with a veil.
She declined an office job. “I want to be a welder,” she said, and soon she was wearing leather overalls, a leather jacket, metal-toe boots and a bandanna to hold back her hair.
Moore, 94, of Walnut Creek, along with five other Bay Area women who were among the first to break the gender barrier in the American workplace, were honored by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and five other members of the Bay Area delegation Thursday at Pelosi’s Capitol office, following breakfast with Vice President Joe Biden and a meeting with President Obama on Monday.
Phyllis Gould, 92, of Fairfax, who worked as a journeyman welder, instigated the visit by 12 years of writing to four presidents, and finally, in her last letter, to Biden, seeking recognition for the women who kept heavy industry running when the men left to fight in World War II.
Gould said the sign at the union hiring hall at the time said, “No women and no blacks.” She persisted and became a Navy-certified welder, a job unthinkable for women of her era.
“The reason I was writing was because this whole country has monuments to the contribution of military veterans, but nothing about us,” Gould said.
She and her friends, volunteers at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, are all in their late 80s and early 90s. “Our time is limited,” Gould said. “We won’t be here in 10 years, so I just was persistent.”
Marian Sousa, 88, of El Sobrante, Gould’s sister, took a drawing class at UC Berkeley and became a blueprint draftsman. Priscilla Elder, 93, of Pinole became an electrician, Kay Morrison, 90, of Fairfield, a journeyman welder, and Marian Wynn, 87, of Fairfield, a pipe welder.
Wynn came to Richmond on a Greyhound bus from Minnesota, one of 11 children, to help her father support the family. He earned $69 a month at the Works Progress Administration.
“I had a job,” Wynn said. “I had money.”
At the shipyard she earned $1 an hour, twice what she earned in seasonal work at a cannery back home. She worked every weekend she could get, making $1.50 an hour on Saturdays and $2 an hour on Sundays.
Poor children were teased at school, Wynn said. “It leaves an impression,” she said. “To this day, I’m self-conscious.”
But this week, she said, “this little girl who only had two dresses to wear to school, here I am going to the White House. It’s unbelievable.”
During the ceremony, Garamendi thanked the women, and others like them, for more than the role they played during the war.
“You sacrificed enormously and your work propelled this nation a major step toward justice,” he said. “I will continue to fight for a basic principle that you made amply clear: Women deserve equal pay for equal work.”
Morrison, a native Californian born in Chico, said she could weld “anywhere, any place.” The work liberated women from the home, she said, and “got us out in the world.”
She went on to raise a family and have a 30-year career at Bank of America, where she rose from safe deposit clerk to bank manager.
Morrison enjoyed a moment in the national spotlight Monday when she kissed Obama on the lips at their White House meeting.
“It think it was fine,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “It was good for me.”
— Reach Carolyn Lochhead at email@example.com