From the Archives: Women's History through Architectural Drawings

Dennis Riley 3 years ago

Addition of Women's Toilets & Locker Room, Building 4 Mold Loft, 1942

The bulk of the BNYDC archives consist of some 30,000 architectural drawings, most from the days when the Yard was a Navy facility.  So much of the attention on the Yard’s expansion during the war years tends to focus on the demise of Wallabout Market and the construction of new buildings, including Building 77 (warehouse and administrative offices) and two buildings that no longer exist: Buildings 294 (sub-assembly shop) and 296 (fabricating shop).

However, in our daily work at the archives, one type of drawing kept catching our casual attention: in drawings from the 1940s there are multiple plans for bathroom and locker room renovations in the shipbuilding and industrial facilities -- specifically for women.


It wasn’t until after coming across this phenomenon repeatedly that the lightbulb went off and we made the obvious connection.  The influx of woman labor during World War II necessitated construction of facilities to accommodate this new segment of the labor force.

During the 1930s the Brooklyn Navy Yard had a small percentage of women workers, approximately 2-3% of the total force, almost all in administrative positions. 

Prior to formally entering the Second World War, the United State began mobilizing its national resources, and in June 1941 the Civil Service Commission suggested to all government agencies that they hire and train women to help alleviate labor shortages.

Following this action, the Navy Department began appealing, in September 1941, to hire women wherever possible and to afford them appropriate training, which could include pre-employment vocational schooling.

However, it wasn’t until almost a year later, in August 1942, that women began working in trade jobs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.


The initial group of 125 women were hired through lengthy civil service procedures that had begun before March 1942.  After this, women were hired as unclassified employees, which meant their appointments were without resort to civil service regulations.  Of these first 125 women hired, twelve were African-American.


During WWII, the Shipworker often noted issues related to women, including the need for new fashion trends in work clothes and uniforms. On the left is a patch worn by Sidonia Levine, one of the first women employed by the Yard in the trade shops. 

It wasn’t long before women were making their mark at the Yard.  In November 1942, Mary Agnes Davin was appointed the first leadingwoman in the Shopfitters Shop.  As reported in the November 23, 1942 issue of the Shipworker, one male colleague stated “The girls are fine. They realize they are pioneers…If these newcomers are any example, they’ll not only make good, but will set a stiff pace for male mechanics.”  By 1943, women were taking over from men as elevator operators, chauffeurs, and electric welders.  And women were appointed as special counselors to address concerns of female employees.  In May of 1943, Rose Steingesser of the Ordnance Shop became the first woman to win a beneficial suggestion award.  For her idea of a jig for installing gland nuts on transformer covers, she received $60.

By January 1945 the Brooklyn Navy Yard employed 4,657 women in production work – still representing only 3.4% of the total force, with an additional 2,300 women in clerical, administrative, drafting, and professional jobs.  This represented the smallest percentage of women in trade work of any navy yard during the war.  And because of their “unclassified” status, after the war ended almost all of these women were laid off within six months.

Today the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation is committed to including women in the industrial workforce.  Since 2011, the Employment Center at BLDG 92 has placed 269 women in jobs and currently women make up approximate 27% of the workforce at the Yard.

Citation: WWII labor statistics are from Labor History Time Line for the Brooklyn Navy Yard.