Excerpt: Capitalist Family Values


 An excerpt from Capitalist Family Values: Gender, Work, and Corporate Culture at Boeing by Polly Reed Myers (September 2015).

The war was a turning point for the Boeing “family” in that it required the company to do  more with less and to refashion ideas of a workplace built on fraternal networks. As one 1943  Boeing ad explained, “One of the most important jobs at Boeing is . . . simplifying procedures  so that, despite shortages of skilled workers, production constantly goes upward.”3 In order  to meet ever-increasing production goals, defense plants across the country expanded their  efforts to find new industrial workers, including women and African American men. 4   Wartime demands reshaped Boeing’s economic and labor policies and offered new  opportunities for untrained women and minorities. The labor crisis of World War II forced  Boeing’s leaders to alter the company image and long-standing employment policies. One  promotional pamphlet described the diversity of workers who built Boeing b-17 Flying Fortresses: “Who are these people, the builders of the Fortresses? They are people just like you and your neighbors. They are housewives, students, store clerks, former business men, teachers. They are middle-aged, elderly; they are youngsters in their latter teens. They are a cross section of all America.”5 Although wartime production needs ultimately required Boeing managers to rely on this “cross section” of workers, company officials resisted permanent changes to the tradition of trained white male labor.

The political economy of World War II, and particularly wartime labor shortages, strained the family metaphor that had been the foundation for Boeing’s corporate culture in the 1930s. Company leaders tried to adapt to the crisis of wartime changes while still adhering to the capitalist family norm of the male breadwinner model. Family norms outside the plant, built into social policy and gendered capitalist norms in the 1930s, helped sustain and nurture the family culture inside Boeing even during the disruptions of war. The Boeing “family” became a way to maintain gender and race hierarchies and foster a sense of stability and tradition even when the realities of everyday life did not provide the cohesiveness or predictability that company leaders wanted. Understanding how Boeing negotiated the hiring of nontraditional wartime workers lends insight into the absence of women in industrial employment once the war ended, as well as the postwar place of women and minorities at the company. The war years opened jobs for women and African American men but in ways that also facilitated employment discrimination and gendered views of opportunities well after the war was over.



During World War II Boeing leaders struggled to balance industry leadership and efficiency with a rapidly growing workforce. The capital and support necessary to maintain such efficiency did not come easily. For the aircraft industry, in particular, it is important to examine the development of professionalism in the industry in the context of government contracts and national security developments. In 1940 Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the development of American airpower an urgent priority because the United States needed to keep up with German technological innovations. Yet during the late 1930s and early 1940s the aviation industry was still in the process of being created. Despite the horror of the Pearl Harbor attack and the United States’ entry into the war in 1941, air force leaders had to work hard to win support for the increased production of aircraft; it was not a smooth transition to wartime production or increased military spending.6 In addition, American industry was still recovering from the toll taken by the Great Depression. In the 1930s public hostility toward women workers, especially those who were married, grew as work became more difficult to find and women faced accusations of taking jobs away from men. Most employers, including the federal government, barred a household from having more than one job with the same employer. Job opportunities for women in heavy industry, beyond the service, clerical, and trade areas, were especially affected by this hostility toward women workers.7 Thus, where skilled workers could be justified in a burgeoning industry such as aircraft manufacturing, the jobs were considered work for male breadwinners.

The beginning of hostilities in Europe and the ensuing military buildup led to government contracts that helped pull Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers out of the slump they had experienced during the Great Depression.8 Boeing began production of the b-17 Flying Fortress in 1935 in response to the army’s request for a bomber.9 In 1939 the U.S. Army Air Corps ordered thirty-nine b-17s,which led to plant expansion and refinancing efforts because of the plane’s high production costs.10 In 1940 Boeing engineers also began designing the b-29 (though the company would not begin production on the aircraft until 1943). To assist in the rapid development of bombers, the federal Defense Plant Corporation funded a new Boeing plant in Renton, Washington, and an expansion of the Seattle plant.11 During the war Boeing also established eight branch plants in western Washington.12 Along with expansion of the plants came the need for a larger workforce. The growth at the Seattle plant, the largest of Boeing’s facilities, was particularly dramatic. At the end of December 1940 the company employed 8,427 people in Seattle, nearly triple the January 1939 level of 3,000 workers.13 

During this growth, the company continued to rely on the family metaphor to describe workplace relations and obligations. When Boeing’s Seattle plant (plant 2) was expanded in 1940, the company hosted a “housewarming” party for more than seven thousand Boeing workers and their guests. The Boeing News reported that workers and their families danced, socialized, and listened to speeches by company leaders, as well as Seattle mayor Arthur Langlie. The publication stressed that the celebratory atmosphere was tempered by the more solemn acknowledgment that the plant expansion signaled the hard work that was needed to complete the new government orders to supply more equipment for the United States and Britain to use in the war: “It was a gay party and a good time was had by everyone, but underneath it all was the knowledge that here was a huge, brand-new building, in which there will be a tremendous amount of activity in months to come.” H. Oliver West, who oversaw production and manufacturing in his role as assistant to company president Phil Johnson, gave a speech in which he stated that he “would rather have the party called a housewarming than a dedication” because Boeing was relying on the hard work of employees to complete defense orders and “this job will be the factory’s real dedication.”14 West’s comments highlight the ways in which references to family functioned as a way to foster employee loyalty during the uncertainty of wartime changes.



3. See, for example, Newhouse, Boeing versus Airbus, esp. 4; Bilstein, American Aerospace Industry, 214, 219; Bauer, Boeing in Peace and War, e.g., 3, 21–28, 46–51, 147; Bauer, Boeing, e.g., 20–23, 81, 91, 131. Led by Alfred Chandler, author of The Invisible Hand, business historians have credited technology and technological efficiency with driving change in workplace organization. See also Clark Davis’s essay on sources in his book Company Men, 280–85, where he explains the significance of responses to Chandler’s work for the historiography of corporate cultures and business history studies.

4. As several scholars have noted, workers were not passive in the construction of corporate culture. See, for example, Sangster, “Softball Solution,” 170–72. Aiwha Ong’s analysis of Malaysian women argues that within corporate structures women exert agency and shape their own identities. Ong, Spirits of Resistance and Capitalist Discipline, 4. In her analysis of Caribbean offshore informatics workers, Carla Freeman argues that Afro Barbadian women’s identity formation reveals a negotiation of power and expresses “both international corporate and local cultures.” Freeman, High Tech and High Heels in the Global Economy, 226. See also Kunda, Engineering Culture.

5. Just a few of these include Benson, Counter Cultures; Kwolek-Folland, Engendering Business; Freeman, High Tech and High Heels; Tinsman, Partners in Conflict; and Pierce, Gender Trials. This study benefits from a growing attention to studies of masculinity and men’s gender roles in recent years, in particular, Baron, Work Engendered; Bederman, Manliness and Civilization; Breazeale, “In Spite of Women”; C. Davis, Company Men; Halberstam, Female Masculinity, 1–44; Kocka, White Collar Workers in America; Kunda, Engineering Culture; Lewchuck, “Men and Monotony”; and Zunz, Making America Corporate.

6. Armitage, “Tied to Other Lives,” 17.

7. The historian Karen Blair points out that only a handful of topics have been covered (none of them dealing with the postwar period) and argues that much more research needs to be done, especially in regard to women’s participation in the workforce. Blair, “State of Research on Pacific Northwest Women,” 48, 51, 54. For recent scholarship on the Pacific Northwest and regional identity, see Blair, Women in Pacific Northwest History; P. Harrison, Open Spaces; Robbins, Great Northwest; and Schwantes, Pacific Northwest.

8. S. Johnson, “Nail This to Your Door,” esp. 606.

9. S. Johnson, “Nail This to Your Door,” 615, 617.

10. Jacobs, “Western History,” 298, 303.

11. For a good overview of debates on western women’s history, see Jacobs, “Getting Out of a Rut,” esp. 589, 591, for a discussion of women’s work in the West. See also Jacobs, “Western History”; and S. Johnson, “Nail This to Your Door.”

12. Warner, Fear of a Queer Planet, xxi. As Warner further explains, heteronormativity is embedded in social structures, institutions, and understandings and often viewed as natural, and it is distinct from heterosexuality, which is organized by framing homosexuality as its parallel. Heteronormativity defines sexuality as “not only heterosexual but normalized and functional” (ix).

13. Katz, “Invention of Heterosexuality,” 7.

14. Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure, 54. She further notes, “This history is most often rendered opaque by appeals to the obviousness of their irrelevance to one another. Much of queer theory now continues this tradition; the very possibility of linking the changing organizations of sexuality to capitalism remains all but unspeakable” (54).

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