by M. Ruth Myers

Mothers working in factories to support America’s war effort while their children roamed the streets at night provides a minor plot thread and a stroke of historical color in Dames Fight Harder, the sixth Maggie Sullivan mystery. It’s grounded firmly in the reality of 1940s Dayton, Ohio, where the detective series is set, and of the nation in general.

The Dayton War Manpower Committee made a multi-pronged effort to recruit women workers.  In his book Home Sweet Home Front: Dayton During World War II, local historian Curt Dalton shows one of the billboards used throughout the city to attract women. Printed cards were mailed to every home in the city and surrounding county encouraging women 18 and older to fill them out and return them to the U.S. Employment Bureau.  Women volunteers went door to door to collect cards that hadn’t been returned.

(From the National Archives: Artworks and Mockups for Cartoons Promoting the War Effort and Original Sketches by Charles Alston, ca. 1942 – ca. 1945)

In addition to asking questions about experience, skills and whether the woman would be willing to accept free training for factory work, the cards also asked:

  • If you accept war work, will outside care be required for your children?
  • How many children in each of four age groups
  • If unable to accept outside employment, how many children of working mothers could you care for?

Some factories, desperate for workers, hit upon the idea of letting two women split an eight-hour shift.

Despite such accommodations and attempts to provide childcare, problems arose.  By the spring of 1942, so many unsupervised children were roaming the streets at night, and in some cases committing vandalism, that some members of the local Church Federation began to seek a solution — namely a curfew. They found an influential ally in policewoman Lulu B. Sollers, supervisor of the city’s Bureau of Policewomen. (She is one of only two actual personages to interact with the characters of the Maggie Sullivan mysteries.)

Sollers, and the policewomen under her, were the officers who most often dealt with juveniles and domestic issues. They were well aware of the growing problems caused by children out on their own. Sollers and volunteers from the Church Federation began to talk to civic groups, schools and other organizations to build support for a curfew.

On June 2, 1943, based on input from Sollers, the City Commission of Dayton enacted the city’s first curfew ordinance. The vote for it was unanimous. Citing a wartime emergency, the mayor signed it into law that same day.

Here’s a paragraph from the account of this action which Sollers wrote for the City of Dayton Annual Report for 1943:

Due to war time conditions now prevailing, juvenile criminal delinquency has so increased in the City of Dayton as to become a menace to the preservation of public peace, safety, health, morals, and welfare, making this action imperative. The ordinance stipulates it shall be unlawful for any minor under the age of fifteen years to loiter, idle, wander, stroll or play in or upon the public streets, highways, roads, alleys, parks, public places, public building, places of amusement and entertainment or vacant lots between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. of the following day, official City time.

(From the City of Dayton Annual Report for 1943)

All across the nation other communities experienced similar problems. A teacher who taught in St. Louis during the war told of fifth and sixth graders whose mothers worked in defense plants flashing five-dollar bills as spending money. “And you’d better believe there was dope,” she added.

From 1940 to 1944, the number of women working in defense industries grew by 462 percent.

The percentage of working women with children under 10 years of age increased from 7.8 to 12.1 from 1940 to 1944.

At the height of World War II, the number of American women in the labor force was more than 19 million. Welders and bus drivers, baggage handlers and bomb site producers, they made up more than a third of the country’s civilian workers.

They are the largely forgotten members of the Greatest Generation.