- 1 A Kaleidoscope of Enka Women (1928-1950)
- 2 “The Greatest Act in the Life of Modern Asheville”: The Coming of Enka
- 3 The Importance of Female Labor
- 4 Hiring Women Workers and Assigning Them to Jobs
- 5 Enka Women’s Work Sectors, Processes and Risks
- 6 On Not Showing Women Workers Working
- 7 The Rayon Market and Women as Shoppers and Models
- 8 Marginalization and Objectification: Misogynist Jokes and Bathing Beauties
- 9 Women’s Basketball
- 10 Enka’s Gains from Hiring Women
- 11 A brief parting word:
- 12 REFERENCES
NOTE TO READERS: A version of this post I mistakenly sent out on July 11 was incomplete. I hit “Publish” when I meant to hit “Preview.” I apologize that several of you tried unsuccessfully to open and read it. This version is complete, and I hope you will enjoy it. As always, I look forward to your reactions, questions, and suggestions. An unrelated factoid: This goes out on my 84th birthday.
A Kaleidoscope of Enka Women (1928-1950)
The following items suggest the range of images, roles, and functions of women employees at American Enka from its inception through its first 22 years (1928-1950). Most come from the company’s employee magazine, The Enka Voice.1 Click each item for an enlarged image; use arrows for slideshow through all images.
These images help to convey the complexity of women’s work and culture at the American Enka Corporation that is the task of this post to explore. The destruction of primary documents in two floods during the 1940s and for later reasons make it necessary to draw primarily upon the employee magazine The Enka Voice for most of the substantiating detail.
“The Greatest Act in the Life of Modern Asheville”: The Coming of Enka
In several previous posts, I have explored the coming of the Dutch-owned American Enka Corporation to Buncombe County’s Hominy Valley in 1928. These posts provide context for this present post and another one to follow on the workplace hazards to which Enka’s women (and some men) were subjected:
The Dutch group seeking a place to build the new plant considered 51 sites before buying 2100 acres along both sides of Hominy Creek. The September 23, 1928 “Rayon Section” of the Asheville Sunday Citizen announced that a $10,000,000 plant would be built. Asheville city officials, the Chamber of Commerce and dozens of businessmen praised the wonders expected from its arrival.
Asheville Merchants Association officials said it “will proclaim to the world that western North Carolina . . . has advantages heretofore unrealized.” The owner of a men’s clothing store proclaimed grandly that the city would “become one of the industrial centers of the southeast,” and many agreed that it was “the dawn of a new era.” Lawyer Claude Love said that at last the city “will have something else besides a tourist resort to advertise it,” and another predicted that its population would “nearly double” in short order. One citizen foresaw nothing but “rapid but consistent progress” from here on out. The plant the Dutch company was bringing “heralds the greatest act in the life of modern Asheville,” another observed, “a turning point in the career of this great city.” “We are on our way,” local judge Zeb V. Nettles said, “and nothing can stop us.”
All agreed that even in the short term, the future looked far better than the recent past. Asheville had had some bad months of late, following upon the downturn of economic circumstances since mid-1926. But now “payrolls will begin immediately, work will be plentiful . . . . There [will] be a job for every idle man. . . . Empty houses will fill up, business will begin to thrive and the smile of happiness and peace will be fixed on many faces.”
The news and projections were about as unanimous as one could possibly hope for. The coming of American Enka was going to “make it all better.”
There was also a surprising element within the widespread euphoria: female labor was going to be a “big factor.”
The Importance of Female Labor
The decision to locate the Dutch-owned American Enka plant in Buncombe County, North Carolina came at the conclusion of months-long negotiations, which spelled out Dutch desiderata and responses from eager-to-seal-the-deal local negotiators. Here is what the Dutch wanted:
- Large land area at a suitable location (They bought 2100 acres on both sides of Hominy Creek, a few miles west of Asheville.)
- Availability of raw materials (mainly wood pulp, sulphuric acid and carbon disulfide among others)
- Large supplies of water and electric power (Hominy Creek and supply lines from Asheville municipal system)
- Large and appropriate markets, conveniently located and accessible
- Transport facilities and moderate costs (rail, and water from SC coast)
- Abundant labor supply matching Dutch desires
Asheville negotiators promised everything the Dutch wanted. The final item appeared to be much in Asheville’s and Buncombe County’s favor: a large supply of unemployed labor that matched Dutch requirements: local–in Asheville, Buncombe and contiguous counties, not imported–and hence likely to be radical; White not Black; non-union or not receptive to unionization, and heavily female–likely to be cheaper than male.
But Asheville’s labor history was not in fact as it was represented to the Dutch. the city’s Central Labor Union organization had had its meeting hall since 1896, street railway workers had staged a successful strike for better pay in 1913, and many skilled workers belonged to unions. Nevertheless, the city was not heavily unionized. 2
The match between labor requirements and the labor supply looked good.3 Out of Asheville’s 1928 population of about 47,000, only 1500 men (3.2%) held manufacturing jobs, and only about 200 women (0.4%).
County statistics were about the same: 3,400 (3.6%) of its 94,000 population were male industrial workers, and 650 (0.7%) were women. All these figures were much smaller for women than in the other textile centers of Gastonia, Winston-Salem, or Kannapolis.4 So there was clearly a large supply of unemployed workers for the company to hire, probably at modest wages.
This expectation was bolstered by the experience of Champion Fiber Company located a few miles west in Canton. Officials there said they would be glad if the Enka plant came to Asheville, since “it would open up employment for women in this section.” Their own plant, they said, “offers so little labor for women.”
The 1937-38 Canton city directory (the only one I could find near this time) confirmed their assertion. Of 400 individuals listed in its first 10 pages (102-112), 155 (39% of the local population) worked for Champion. Of those, only 21 (13.5%) were women. The large majority of the women were listed just as “emp[loyee]” or some version of office worker (e.g., sten[ographer]). None worked in production or technical laboratories.
Thus whatever the labor supply was in Asheville, Buncombe County and Haywood County, Champion Fiber was not cutting into it.
The Dutch owners and managers appeared to be reassured. They announced that they would hire 60% women at the plant: about 3,000 of the anticipated 5,000 workers needed. This percentage was higher than the 41.6% in U.S. textile plants, and far beyond the 5.7% in the world at large.5
Hiring Women Workers and Assigning Them to Jobs
A Help Wanted brochure Enka published early in 1929 was full of promises: commuter train service from Asheville and (to take Champion Fiber’s urging seriously) Canton; inexpensive room and board, diverse jobs, good climate, excellent working conditions, and unsurpassed “scenic beauties.”
What was not to like? For women, a good bit, as it turned out. Enka wanted young women and girls (single, the language suggested), and the “many departments” referred to were mostly production departments where toxic and lethal chemicals were required.6
The female workers Enka sought for production departments were “young women and girls.” Some “Men and Boys” were sought “not only[for] positions in the various processes of manufacturing, but men in the skilled trades trades” could expect to “qualify for same.” But qualifying as Foremen and Semi-Divisional Heads was also a reasonable expectation.7
Documenting exactly how many employees, and of which sex, Enka actually employed in the rushed months of hiring prior to its opening in July 1929 is nearly impossible.8 Only a small handful of Enka workers, all male, appeared in the 1929 Asheville city directory (probably compiled in mid- late-1928).
But in the 1930 directory, 416 Enka employees were listed, and the May 1930 Enka Voice reported that 65% of its 2,200 employees were women.
For both women and men, some hiring criteria (e.g. race) were in place but not emphasized. Several of them were discernible in the only actual Enka employment application I have ever seen.
Some details about this application are worth noting:
- Technically, a female applicant could have claimed experience in one of the listed skilled trades, but in 1928-29 she would have been unlikely to have gained such experience. And none of the professional positions in which she could likely have had experience (nurse, teacher, secretary, etc.) were included in the list. Some young Asheville Women were attending Queens College, Salem College, North Carolina Women’s College (later UNC Greensboro), and a few others, but few of those would have been likely to seek jobs at Enka.
- Female applicants were asked a specific question about prior employment (“whether in factory or otherwise”), while men were asked for “class” of work experience (“Do you consider yourself to be first class in your trade?”)–presumably on the skilled trades continuum (apprentice, journeyman, etc.)
- All applicants had to say whether they were married or single, but it mattered only for women, apparently, since it was single women (or widows) who were mainly being hired–presumably to prevent pregnancies, childcare or other household commitments from interfering with work duties.
- All applicants had to name any prior employer, and the answer could on its face be disqualifying. Mae Cole of Nantahala NC, who submitted the application here, named Loray Mills in Gastonia. Her response would have been seen that way. Her application (returned to her, it appeared from the postmark), dated August 9, 1929, was processed during the huge Loray textile strike, which had been going on since early in the year. It had resulted in repeated violence and led (most famously, scarcely a month later) to the killing of singer, Loray worker and union organizer Ella Mae Wiggins. Cole and Wiggins had grown up within about 20 miles of each other.9
As it sought and hired its mostly young and single female workforce, Enka developed and deployed a public relations strategy that maximized the benefits of having adopted such a hiring strategy. A dramatic–but by no means the only–example is this one:
The “girls” appeared to have been photographed on bleachers in front of the plant smokestack and iconic ENKA tower. But there were no such bleachers on the premises, either then or later. Clever post-production editing allowed a photo taken in a large, level indoor space, cropped along the edges and overlaid on a separate photo of the smokestack and tower to give it the “bleachers” effect. Enlarging the photo allows the cropping of the slanted side edges to be seen. In early 1931, Enka’s 1125 “Girl Employees” were gathered for a group photograph.10 It appeared on the cover of the February issue.
Enka Women’s Work Sectors, Processes and Risks
Production departments with large percentages of women workers (Reeling was one of them) usually had volunteer Enka Voice reporters who submitted materials for monthly columns. They were frequently headed by a male “Master” who presumably reviewed and approved their writing for publication.
So where in the plant were women assigned to work? And how many were in any specified departments or jobs?
So far as I have been able to determine, registers, rolls, or other summary lists of women employees and their departments no longer exist. The closest item I have discovered is a “vocational register” published in the Enka Voice in August 1930, slightly over a year after the plant opened.11
Numbers of employees in any unit cannot be determined from this list, since only a single name is included for each unit “as an illustration to show that such a diversity does exist.” The list is also clouded by lumping all of the jobs together as “professions,” “occupations,” and “trades,” without specifying which ones were which. The opening paragraph also says that “the names shown are those of our older employees,” but whether “older” meant employed the longest (no one had been there much over a year at the time) or employees who were older is not clear.
The roster shows a few women in supervisory roles. Several production departments (e.g., Reeling), had “Forelady”positions, but their duties were not defined, either separately or in relation to the male “Masters,” Supervisors or Chief Something-or-Others who appear to have been in all departments.
Meanwhile, one woman was an Assistant Chemist, another a Supervisor in the Labor Employment Department, and two others nurses in the hospital. One was called “Bank Account Reconciler,” but had she been male, she might have been designated as Accountant. Others were Checkers or Inspectors, but the status of those jobs is unknown.12
Advancement opportunities for women were modest. Women in production jobs (Spinnerette, Bleacher, Twister, Sorter, Reeler) could advance to 2nd or 1st class (e.g., Twister 2nd Class). Some were were distinguished by colored arm bands (e.g., “She is a Green Band”), but requirements or supervisory significance of such distinctions, if any, is unclear. Many women’s job titles suggested rudimentary and repetitive work (e.g., silk hanger or spool cleaner).
Others (of whom there appear not to have been many) were in low-level service jobs:
- clerk, typist, cashier, stenographer
- office machine, telephone or telegraph operator
- “day worker” (meaning unclear; temporary or assigned each day as needed?)
- sample sorter, packer or weigher of finished goods
- maid, matron
On Not Showing Women Workers Working
And what did the work these women did consist of, or look like? One can only wonder or surmise.
Month after month, virtually every page of the Enka Voice carried photographs of employees. Administrators and managers (almost all male) appeared in every issue, inside and outside the plant. Men in the professions and skilled trades (engineers, chemists, instrument makers, welders, machinists, painters) were often shown doing their work.
But men doing dangerously toxic skilled work (e.g., a “chemical dissolver” whose job it was to treat sheets of cellulose with deadly toxic carbon disulfide, “lead burners” who welded the lead pipe used to carry process acid, and spinning room workers who leaned over troughs of it), were never shown in any photographs I have encountered.
Such a lack seems to me explainable mainly on the basis of a company policy against it. The U.S. had many viscose rayon plants and companies during Enka’s early years, and the patents under which they operated were tightly held and guarded. That may have accounted for some of the limits on process photography.13 There were plenty of photos showing men doing skilled, non-process work, however.
So far as I have been able to determine, Enka’s women employees were never photographed (or shown in the Enka Voice) at their production work stations, although those in office jobs occasionally were.14
How was that partition managed or justified? Primarily through what one might call diversionary images (click to enlarge items in the gallery below):
Each of these photographs of women (sometimes in uniform, sometimes not) in outdoor settings rather than at their work stations stands for many of the type:
- mothers with babies, cute children and brides. This is the first of them, from the second issue, May 1930. The first children (of the company’s Dutch managers) appeared two pages later, and the first outdoor shot of a working woman (secretary Norma De Ath, not working) in the July issue, p. 9.
- a male manager towering above his bevy of girls (a favorite thematic: male dominance and smugness)
- recently married “girls” (as they continued to be referred to, regardless of how many years they had worked at Enka) with their company wedding presents
- two stylishly dressed telephone operators, not operating telephones
- “girls” checking books out of the library (a favorite motif, used many times)
- an Enka Voice photographer (“smiling young lady”) with no camera15
- a slightly voyeuristic shot of a coy rayon maiden (apologies to Andrew Marvell) posing in front of a flowering bush
- “Blondes in Reeling,” arranged by height and emphasizing their physical attractiveness rather than their work skills or activities
- Sorting girls and their Enka wedding gifts, iconic Enka tower at rear center
A single page of the magazine brought these gender-marked modes of presentation into close proximity (click to enlarge):
The two men at the top, in the positions favored by page-designers, together with educational records, professional qualifications and extracurricular interests (including interest in “the fair sex”) were engrossed in technical observation and activity. Their photo captions (BACHELOR and HOBBYIST) do not compromise either their professional standing or jobs as chemists. Mr. Mowry had a college degree and 2 years of experience at Enka; Mr. McClintock had not yet graduated, and had worked only the equivalent of 2 years as a co-operative student.
But CHEMIST Mrs. E. C. Conrad (at lower right)–“the former Annie June Hornaday” it would have been in then-current parlance–was an Elon College graduate, pre-med student and (equally important?) Tau Zeta Phi sorority girl. She been employed at Enka for 9 years, and had (despite what one might expect?) “proven to be a fine chemist.” By comparison with her two male coworkers, that should have qualified her to be head of the Lab. Moreover, the unnamed photographer who took the photos of Mrs. Conrad (might it have been Louise Ovitt?) blurred her chemical apparatus (or could it be desk clutter or potted plants?) into the background in favor of a more ladylike pose. And whether she had been “interested” in eligible bachelors or not, we are not told, but presumably she had been–at least enough to acquire the marital mark of belonging, along with her technical expertise. She spent her entire 37-year professional career at Enka.16
Judging from the Enka Voice text, female NEWCOMER Miss Viola Beck (at lower left–the least privileged page-design position), had neither education, qualifications nor skills worth mentioning. If one checks into the record at this remove, however, it appears that she had had a rather difficult life, which she herself might have preferred not to include on the Chemical Lab page.17
The Rayon Market and Women as Shoppers and Models
All of the patterns, structures, systems and iconography of women workers at American Enka were created and maintained in order to produce and market rayon.
That had been clear since the day the arrival of American Enka to western North Carolina in the autumn of 1928. The “Rayon Section” of the September 23, 1928 edition of the Asheville Sunday Citizen carried an article (cited and linked above) saying that being able to hire women workers was a “big factor” in the decision to locate the plant in Buncombe County.
A related argument was that future women shoppers would be key to the success of the venture.
Disappointingly, the article promised by this headline did not mention advertising or marketing plans. It dwelt instead on improving the characteristics of rayon yarn (e.g., “cross-dyeing” and rayon/wool blends) to broaden its uses. But it was likely on the minds of the managers and planners that hiring thousands of women workers was likely to raise the number of women shoppers for rayon goods as well.
The demand for women’s rayon garments (mostly undergarments) had in fact been growing rapidly during the 1920s. Avram’s The Rayon Industry (1929) tallied the demand, which in 1919 had been only 93,000 lbs./per year. But then the demand curve turned sharply upwards, to 2,000,000 lbs. in 1923 and 29,000,000 lbs. in 1927.18
In her 2017 study of the French-owned Tubize Chantillon rayon plant in Rome GA, Lydia Simpson drew upon Susannah Handley’s earlier discussion of the rise of nylon and other synthetics in the 1920s.19)
Handley had tied the rise of synthetic fibers in the 1920s to a major cultural shift in attitudes toward commercialism, the growth of the advertising industry, and the enfranchisement of women, to whom the new advertising industry catered.
The “modern woman” of the 1920s, Simpson observed, traded corsets for girdles and shortened her skirts to the knee.
The demise of the chemise, traditionally worn beneath corsets and girdles, meant that new structured undergarments, such as the increasingly popular brassiere, women now wore directly against the skin, calling for softer, lighter fabrics.
Simultaneously, as the design of new “intimate apparel” responded to external fashion trends, “the invention of new, less constricting undergarments for women opened up new worlds of possibility in fashion design and made room for rayon . . . as a fashion-forward fabric.”20
Indeed, Asheville merchants were already aware of the rising demand–mostly for women, but to a small extent for men as well. In the same issue of the Asheville Sunday Citizen that announced the coming of the Enka plant, the local Palais Royale department store ran a large display ad for rayon clothing.
Within about a year after the Enka plant began operations, it mounted a major advertising exhibit at the Philadelphia exposition, touting the appeal of its “beautiful new line of Rayon yarns.”
Two months later, a group of young college women were assembled in Raleigh, dressed in stylish (for the period) rayon dresses and photographed for the Enka Voice.
A more elaborate print media presentation was an October 1930 photograph of a woman dressed in an Enka rayon outfit (“sportswear suiting”) designed by an in-house designer (professional credentials supplied) in “our New York Fabrics Development Department.” Technical specifications on the yarn used and an attached example of the cloth were also provided.
It was near the end of 1936, however, before the first full back-cover photo of high-end design in women’s clothing crafted of Enka rayon (“the perfect fabric for formal wear”) appeared in the Enka Voice. This may also have marked the first appearance of Enka’s new logo: “The fate of a fabric hangs by a thread.”
The back cover glamour shots continued thereafter on a monthly basis, except for now and then at holiday times. Along the way they became more and more high-fashion and formal.
Women models were never named, but it seems a safe guess that instead of being recruited from local colleges, they were hired by Enka’s New York office. Indeed, the next example featuring (was it?) college students was keyed to upper-crust New England by the Bryn Mawr commuter railroad stop sign.
As World War II came along, the high-fashion shots were sometimes replaced in favor of war-themed ones (such as the April 1942 shot of a man in uniform signing an autograph for a woman in a rather business-like “two-piece faille suit”).
But women’s formal dresses (though frequently of a rather more somber sort) remained, even during the war when the big rayon news was that rayon cord was being used in the tires of heavy bombers overseas, and front covers regularly featured troops-in-action photographs and back ones sometimes urged war bonds rather than fancy dresses.
By early 1946, such finery had returned on an every-month basis. The January 1947 shot evoked elegance of the pre-war sort, only moreso:
Marginalization and Objectification: Misogynist Jokes and Bathing Beauties
Despite the idealization of women and their clothing, which was evident not only on Enka Voice covers, but throughout the magazine as well, old patterns of marginalization and objectivication remained.
Mysogynist jokes appeared for years on virtually every “jokes” or “fun” page of the Enka Voice. Most drew upon familiar hackneyed types: flirtatious young women eager to snare a marriageable man, others ignorant of household finance or other essential knowledge, overly talkative women, those who lose track of time, overspending shoppers, domineering wives, wives who repeatedly miss the point (obvious to any husband, of course), restive husbands eager for extramarital adventure (and not infrequently trapped in its results), inept cooks and poor drivers, overbearing mothers-in-law and “old battleaxes” in general, old maids harboring undimmed marital hopes.
Now and then, women targeted within such jokes righted the balance by catching the joker in contradictions, exposing his own failures and ineptitude, displaying wit quicker and more incisive than his, or revealing him as undeserving of consideration. 21
Interleaved with the misogynist jokes were photographs of women in bathing suits or other attire emphasizing their physical appeal, often with engaging captions and/or commentary. This two-page spread suggests the range of images offered. (Click to enlarge.)
Compared with easily available images of “pinup girls” in the 1930s, these images were rather chaste and restrained. But within the company’s “family magazine,” they also slightly pushed the boundaries. Sharing the 2-page spread of bathing beauties was a review of the novel Dead Woman’s Shoes (on p. 6), which promised that it “[delves] into the seamy side of isolated . . . life . . . on a big Nebraska farm . . . without the gloom anticipated by the reader.”
Accompanying text for Enka’s first place entry into the Industrial Division of Asheville’s Rhododendron Festival parade in 1937 said that the float’s rayon-draped models included Azile Saunders of the Reeling Department in a white figured bathing suit, her coworker Viola Beck in a dark red one, and Viola Quinn of Coning and Spool Winding in a red flowered one.22 They were not visible in this (as they circumspectly note) “rear view” photograph, however.
Competing for space with the Enka Voice’s “women’s page,” its full back-cover high fashion shots, beauty-bedecked floats in the Rhododendron Festival, photos of coy maidens, assembled blondes from various departments (and redheads, too, I think, though one can’t tell, since the magazine was only black and white), and babies and brides were Enka’s women basketball players.
Looking closely at women’s basketball turns out to reveal more than one might expect with regard to women workers at American Enka: their status (mixed and compromised as it was), their self-understanding and self actualization, their participation in a gendered culture that only partially Venn-diagrammed with the dominant culture of men, and (most determinatively) their positioning within Enka’s maintenance of market position and its overarching extraction of profits. What follows here is an effort to elucidate a few of its most revealing features.
The Early Years: A Thumbnail History
So out of what dynamics did women’s basketball emerge?
“For most of basketball’s history,” historians Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford observe,
“competitive athletics has been considered a man’s realm. The components of athletic success—discipline, determination, strength, stamina, assertiveness—have been cast as male, not female, birthrights. As a result, female athletes have found their efforts hemmed in by cautions and restrictions designed to “protect” them from the strains of heated competition. Many have also faced questions about whether excelling at a “masculine” activity somehow jeopardized their womanhood, whether through threatening their ability to have children, rendering them unattractive to men or nudging them toward lesbianism.”23
However such issues were adjudicated among early audiences, women’s basketball emerged in the early 1890s and rapidly gained a following of aspiring players, fascinated audiences, and hopeful sponsors. It was at once a mix of broad cultural shift, gender reevaluation and redefinition, and athletic invention and exploration.
The Boston Normal School (1889) “dedicated to building female strength” sent some of its earliest students into newly created “physical education” positions in a few women’s colleges, where they endeavored to replace “weak muscles, tight corsets and constraining skirts” with gymnastic workouts. As many students abandoned their corsets and other traditionally required garb in favor of the new “bloomers,” some parents “protested that exercise would render their daughters unladylike.”24
Expansion and development of the game brought the first women’s intercollegiate contest at UC Berkeley in 1896, and the Fort Shaw Industrial School’s women’s team won the championship at the 1904 World’s Fair.
The game emerged and grew rapidly at several women’s colleges, making athletic competition “an integral part of a newly energetic version of American womanhood.” For all the energy, however, the emerging game “still bore a Victorian stamp, stressing refinement and gentility as well as confidence and strength. Nevertheless, it represented a profound shift in received views of womanhood, trading fragility for determined resolve.25
But the first intercollegiate game in Charlotte NC in 1907 called forth an oppositional cartoon.
Opposition also emerged within the sponsoring institutions themselves–where women’s “claims of independence and physical confidence were frequently viewed not as expanding the bounds of womanhood but as invading territory that belonged to men,” and men “accustomed to having the run of . . . athletic facilities . . .were often reluctant to share them with women,” whom they were wont to refer to derisively as “mannish.” Faced with such opposition, women physical educators “built women’s college sports into a separate and often powerful realm, one that ran by its own rules and where women were wholly in charge.”26
But whether women were wholly in charge or not, separate women’s rules were “designed both to promote female strength and to reinforce the era’s classically ‘feminine’ traits of modesty, gentility and order.” Those rules seem to have been closely monitored and enforced. In 1923 the secretary of the Women’s National Basketball Committee of the National Committee on Women’s Athletics came to Asheville for discussions about the game’s rules.27
Women’s Uniforms in the High School Years
For my present purpose, I take as an index to change (one among many, to be sure) the slow shifts in women basketball players’ uniforms, women players’ emergence into full comparative status with men players, and more specifically their usefulness (as the Rayonettes) to American Enka’s rayon fashion marketing strategy.
As signs of resistance and rigidity amidst change, early regulations for women players’ uniforms were strict, including the wearing of “bloomers” dating from the 1850s. Such strictures remained in evidence for decades. As late as 1936, U.S. Olympics president Avery Brundage fulminated that “I am fed up to the ears with women as track and field competitors.“ “The charms of such women,” he said, “sink to less than zero.”28
To establish a relevant timeline for the Enka Rayonettes’ uniform, consider some pre-1929 (the date American Enka opened) photographs of women’s high school basketball teams in North Carolina, from counties and schools throughout the state, small and large, urban and rural.
These photos have been chosen for the uniforms’ design features–and their presumable acceptability to the general public (i.e., school parents and community arbiters of taste).
Although I have examined dozens of these team photographs, I make no claim that these are “typical” or “widespread,” or that any one of them represents x% of uniforms in use in any particular year or school. I have noticed, however, that over a period of time, the “sailor” shirts and scarves appear frequently. Why that may have been so, I have no idea. A widely-used item of female apparel at the time? Identification with WWI sailors (?), 1917 to 1925, in these examples. 29
Click each image to enlarge, or click first one and scroll through. Some contextual and interpretive remarks follow the gallery.
- Dover High School, 1915: All black uniforms, from shoes to (for some, or all?) head-coverings; half- or 3/4 sleeve shirts; below-knees skirts (bloomers?); long (above knees) stockings; formal, straight, stiff posture; somber expressions. Overall, a rather funereal presentation.
- Durham High School (1917): Long, dark skirts (bloomers?); white, 3/4 length sleeve (except for the woman (one player called “manager” here) in front), loosely-open V-neck “sailor” shirts; colored (?) kerchiefs; no head covering; shorter hair styles; pleasant, relaxed expressions. Taken together, a bright, relaxed, comfortable, appealing aspect.
- Rocky Mount High School (1920): Informal outdoor setting; relaxed, prone posture; sailor shirts and kerchiefs with white stripes and sailor insignia on sleeves; shorter hair styles; white (?) shoes; black stockings (?) ending above the ankle (two players at L end).
- Wadesboro High School (1922): Sailor shirts and kerchiefs; half- to full-length sleeves; relaxed, affectionate and embracing posture and pleasant expressions; black and white shoes; black, full-length stockings; covered knees.
- Asheville High School (1922): Late example of early mode (all black, full-length stockings, covered knees, bloomers), but with some adaptations from later (sailor shirts and kerchiefs, but black, not white) and a brush with emerging style (more deeply-cut V-necks; longer, bouffant hair styles).
- Coolemee High School (1925): Sailor-style uniforms (but with bloomers), “bobbed” (would one say?) hair styles, and somewhat saucy personal/team presentation placed them (with several other teams) on the developing edge. Other photos show that at least some men’s teams had indoor practice spaces, but women practiced outside.
- Kannapolis (1925): Lingering elements of black bloomers and plain, long-sleeved black shirts; no sailor shirts, except for woman in rear (coach?). But gestures forward as well: relaxed, prone postures; heads propped on elbows, rather pixie-like expressions with heads supported on raised arms; low-topped shoes; below-knee stockings. Three differently-dressed women at rear are identified as Coach (in sailor shirt), Captain and Manager.
- Lenoir (1926): A forward-leaning mix: black and white shoes; knee-length (at least) shorts (skirts? bloomers?); white-trimmed, low V-neck, (quite low, comparatively speaking) short-sleeve shirts (but with one sailor shirt/kerchief); bare knees but with long, heavy (men’s?) athletic socks. Dominant color of uniforms: dark, or black.
- Franklin (1928): From far-western Macon County. They played (says included commentary) other fairly local western teams. Overall style that transcended virtually all of the long-established elements: no bloomers, no sailor shirts, no long (or medium) sleeves, bobbed hair styles (2nd and 4th from L in front row, 1st and 4th in rear). Banded V-neck. “F” logo on shirts, some version of which becomes standard.
- Fuquay-Varina (1928): Only late-20s photo that shows clearly the lower part of the uniform: black shorts (bloomer length but not bloomer-style), with school logo; heavy athletic socks but with bare knees. Also, with Lenoir, Franklin and Lincolnton (1926-1929), shirts with very short sleeves.
- Lincolnton (1929): Photo from the year that women’s basketball emerged at American Enka. A break with every past-looking marker, in favor of bare knees; low socks and white shoes, moderate-length to short, almost unanimously short/bobbed hair; moderately low-cut V-necks, and fully-rendered school name on short-sleeve shirts. Lower part of uniforms (not discernible in photo, but certainly not skirts, probably not bloomers of any length) were most likely shorts. 30
Consider also several brief general observations before moving to the Enka Rayonettes:
- I would have preferred to parallel the women’s team photos above with those of men’s teams, but that was tangential to my topic, and doing so would have taken more time and added more space than I thought advisable.
- Including men’s team photos would not have illustrated similar patterns of change because men’s uniforms did not change much. In comparison with the above images of women’s teams, early men’s uniforms already had the form that it took women’s teams (and uniforms) a quarter-century to allow or encourage: a comparable degree of comfort, free range of movement, and body autonomy. Note sleeveless shirts with alphabetic school/team logo (B[asket] ASHEVILLE B[all]), short shorts, bare knees and same-gender coach.
- If a school in the entire range of yearbooks I examined had only one basketball team, it was almost certain to be a men’s team.
Women’s [“Girls'”] Basketball at Enka
Where so much enthusiasm for basketball among young female Enka workers came from is not clear.
The most likely early source was probably women’s college and high school basketball, which had been around since the turn of the century.31
How many star players from area high school basketball (or other) teams were recruited as Enka workers in order to fill women’s basketball rosters, I do not know. But since American Enka’s 2100-acre industrial installation on Hominy Creek in Buncombe County had a labor pool that drew in thousands of women workers from a half-dozen or so neighboring western North Carolina counties, it seems likely that some women high school basketball players would have been among them.
Such recruits would have brought their high school experience and achievement with them. But how much attention was paid to it was another matter. Among the many Enka Voice photographs of individual women players and teams, I did not discover any accounts of high school athletic experience. College experience was less likely to be a factor, since women with college degrees were not likely to seek (or take) rayon production jobs.32
“The idea of company-sponsored athletics,” Grundy and Shackelford observe, “had been born in the early 1900s” to foster teamwork and a presumed synergy between athletic performance and worker effectiveness. From the 1910s into the 1950s, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) “nurtured a thriving culture of industrial athletics” that appealed to businesses that saw “women’s teams as savvy advertising, an appealing way to get their name into the public eye.”33 The AAU held its first national women’s championship in 1926, and annually from 1929 into the 1970s.
In the Asheville area, a Beacon Mills women’s team was playing (and competing) 8 months before the announcement of the Dutch-owned American Enka plant’s arrival.34 And other teams were emerging in the textile industry in neighboring states.
The first Enka team seems to have coalesced out of some informal lunchtime groups such as those below, gathered outdoors from the Reeling and Twisting departments:
About the time these photos were taken, a “Recreation Committee” was formed, and soon after that departmental teams were playing against each other on the outdoor Girls’ Athletic Field. Their coach (male, of course) Rupert Crowell was guessing that they might soon take on some of the “outside teams.”
The half-jocular narrative series of photos at right (1931) proved less jocular than their captions implied. Two months later, Enka had a championship women’s team on its hands (photo below L).
The appearance of the Enka women’s (“girls”) team on the company Rhododendron Festival float in 1936 marked an important moment of legitimacy and appeal for the team.
Sports activity at Enka seems to have been on hold during World War II, but an Enka Voice reporter commented in February 1946, “I sure am glad to see our girls and boys play basketball again, these days, really missed that all through the war,” followed by one photo of the men’s team.
Finally in April 1946, an Enka Voice photo of the women’s (“girls'”) team as runners up in the western North Carolina tournament showed them in uniforms devoid of any vestige of the old, bloomered ones: short-sleeved shirts, and short shorts without elastic in the legs. It was a substantial gain, but after 16 years their coach was still a man.
Enka’s Gains from Hiring Women
With regard to the evidence and arguments treated in this post, what did Enka stand to gain from its treatment of women workers in general?
- By hiring a high percentage of women and routing them into lower-wage production jobs, it avoided paying vast amounts of wages over decades.
- The job system was structured to keep women workers subordinate to male supervisors.
- It was able to glamorize its female workforce, and mute the dangers women workers faced daily as workers.
- It built most of its marketing portfolio (with the exception of the World War detour into military uses) around the glamorization of women’s rayon fashions.
- The rayon marketing system and its iconography served as a cover for the various conventional and long-standing forms of misogyny that were also evident in the industry and in The Enka Voice.
And what did American Enka Corporation gain from its formation and promotion of “girls'” basketball? One can argue that it gained considerably:
- It was able to tie rayon marketing closely to public interest in sports.
- It contributed to the increasing public standing of the company itself.35
- It thereby drew attention from, and in fact masked, the health and accident losses endemic to the rayon production process. (A subsequent post will attend more closely to this factor.)
- It was therefore able to take credit for, and to celebrate, treating women far more humanely in the basketball realm than it ever did on the workplace floor.
- The apparent equity of men’s and women’s basketball implied an equity of treatment of men and women workers by the corporation, which in fact did not exist.
A brief parting word:
In order to keep this post from being even longer than it is, I have reserved several important topics for later ones:
- The hazards (especially from the lethal process chemical carbon disuflide) in which most Enka women (and many men as well) worked;
- Enka’s women workers’ creation of an inter- and extra-plant culture that transcended the plant’s production-maximizing culture and served their own preferences and needs; and
- The long-term externalities of American Enka’s presence and operation in Hominy Valley (air, water, and soil pollution; reinforcement of white racial dominance)
Asheville Citizen, Citizen-Times and Sunday Citizen; DigitalNC collection of North Carolina high school annuals; The Enka Voice, 1930-1950; Greenville [SC] News, articles on textile league basketball tournaments; Grundy, Pamela. Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-Century North Carolina; Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001; Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford, Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), https://heinonline.org/HOL/P?h=hein.blasports/stggs0001&i=1; Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, “Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South,” Journal of American History 73 (No. 2) 1986), pp. 354-382, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1908226; Susannah Handley, Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999); J. L. Mashburn, Hominy Valley: The Golden Years. Enka NC: Colonial House, 2008; Lydia B. Simpson, “All Roads Lead: From Ancient Silk Road to Multinational Synthetic Fibers Industry in a Southern Appalachian Town” (Ph.D., Middle Tennessee State University, 2017), http://search.proquest.com/pqdtglobal/docview/2009405312/abstract/F80F1A6910834641PQ/8.Notes
- The Enka Voice continued for about 20 years longer, but I have not had access to that portion of it.
- On the street railway strike, see my earlier post Family Challenges in the ‘Teens: A Strike, a Flood, and an Epidemic.
- For a more detailed discussion of the desired labor demographics and the negotiations between the Dutch and Asheville’s local committee, see my earlier post Enka Builds a Labor Force: The Magic of Native-Born Mountain Workers.
- These figures come from “Female Labor Big Factor in Getting Plant,” Asheville Sunday Citizen, 23 Sept. 1928, B1 and B2.
- H. L. Herring, “The Outside Employer in the Southern Industrial Pattern.” Social Forces 18, no. 1 (October 1, 1939): 115–26, https://doi.org/10.2307/2570503.
- This will be the subject of my next post.
- On working women who went out on strike in a viscose rayon plant at Elizabethton TN (American Glanzstoff), see Jacquelyn Dowd Hall, Disorderly Women: Gender and Labor Militancy in the Appalachian South, Journal of American History 73 (No. 2) 1986), pp. 354-382, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1908226. I will take up some of these issues in two subsequent posts.
- Many early plant records were destroyed in the flood of mid-1940.
- Wiggins was from near Bryson City, and Cole from Nantahala. NCpedia
- The number is approximate, and was given differently in other published sources, but always >1100.
- “Enka’s Vocational Register — 238 Trades,” Enka Voice, Aug. 1930, pp. 8-9.
- Asheville’s Blanton’s Business College, which prepared many for office jobs, did not appear in the Asheville directory or newspaper advertisements until 1931, but seems to have been somewhat older than that.
- Knowledge of the lethal toxicity of carbon disulifde, dating to before the invention of rayon was no doubt another source of caution. I will address this matter in a subsequent post.
- This pattern changed somewhat after World War II, especially in Enka’s recently completed plant at Lowland TN. But even there, only a few of those pictured at work stations were doing production work. A special 30th American Enka anniversary section of the Asheville Citizen-Times in July 1959 contained a number of process-area photographs from the plant’s early years.
- The magazine scrupulously credited photos taken by its male photographers, but I do not recall seeing even one credited to Louise Ovitt.
- She married Enka chemical engineer Ernest C. Conrad, Jr. in 1936. Later in his own career he left Enka and chemical engineering to become a tax appraiser. He died at 60 in 1968. She survived him by 5 years, dying in 1973 at 66. From census of 1940; June Hornaday Conrad, Certificate of Death; Ernest Clifton Conrad, Certificate of Death.
- Some research in the available public record is helpful in this regard. She was born as the 6th of 9 children in the farm family of Pink and Ratchel Wright, in Leicester township (not far from the later Hominy Valley location of the Enka plant), in 1913. Her given name was not clear in the 1920 census, but it appears to have been something like Virgia V. At the time of the census, her two older brothers (17 and 19) were working with their father on the farm, and her 14 year-old sister was working in a cotton mill. Where she went to school is not known, but it appears that life on the farm did not suit her. On Christmas Day in 1928, she told a Buncombe County registrar her name was Viola and that she was 18, and married 21 year-old Fred T. Beck. The marriage lasted something short of 18 months. By April 14, 1930, when the 1930 census was taken, she (still known as Viola V. Beck) was living in Beaverdam Township with her sister, brother-in-law Jesse Duyck and their 2 1/2 year-old daughter. Jesse was working as a fireman in a local industrial power plant (probably Sayles Bleacheries in Asheville), and Viola (then 17) had gotten a job as a “Reel Girl” in the newly opened (July 1929) Enka plant. A cryptic October 3, 1933 note in the Asheville Citizen-Times announced that Viola had been granted a divorce after “two years separation” (i.e., before October 3, 1931). By sometime in 1940 she had moved out of her sister’s house and into a boarding house in Asheville. She was still working at Enka, not in Reeling but as an “office clerk and stenographer” — presumably in the Chemical Lab. On Valentine’s Day 1944 (her romantic idealism still intact from the Christmas wedding 16 years earlier), she married George Lee Griffin in New Hanover County. How long that marriage lasted is not known, but in 1951 — then living in Jacksonville FL — she married James Simpson Owen and became Viola Vargie [sic] Wright Owen. Her obituary said nothing about her work at Enka, listed no children, and said that 5 of her brothers and sisters had died earlier. Sometime before she died, she returned to western North Carolina (where her other 3 brothers still lived). She was buried there.(Censuses of 1920, 1930 and 1940; Index to Female Marriages Book L-Z; Census of 1930; Asheville Citizen-Times; Census of 1940; obituary, July 15, 2022.) I am grateful to Anne Mitchell Whisnant for locating these documents.
- Avram, Rayon Industry, Table 45, p. 256
- Simpson, “All Roads Lead: From Ancient Silk Road to Multinational Synthetic Fibers Industry in a Southern Appalachian Town” (2017) and Handley, Nylon: The Story of a Fashion Revolution (1999). The Rome GA plant did not employ the viscose process (hence did not require the use of the lethal chemical carbon disulfide, but did use other toxic chemicals in their process. See Simpson, p. 39.
- Simpson, “All Roads Lead,” pp. 51-52, 60.
- Women were by no means the only target of such jokes. Indeed, virtually no group was immune: Blacks of every variety — some of them treated in a previous post: The Enka Voice in White and (Rarely) Black — Native Americans, Italians, “Scotsmen,” mountaineers, Mexicans, “country” people, and numerous others.
- A year later, Viola Beck was shown in the Enka Voice as an employee of Enka’s Chemistry Lab.
- Shattering the Glass, p. 4. Much of the contextual substance and analysis in this narrative is drawn from Grundy, Learning to Win (2001) and Grundy and Shackelford, Shattering the Glass (2007). Materials on Asheville, Buncombe County, images of North Carolina high school teams and American Enka derive from my own research.
- Shattering the Glass, pp. 16-18
- Shattering the Glass, p. 11
- Shattering the Glass, p. 32
- Asheville Citizen-Times, Jan. 28, 1923, p. 18.
- See Shattering the Glass, pp. 26-32, 53, 58f., for these and associated details.
- Many other examples are available at DigitalNC North Carolina Yearbooks.
- Subsequent yearbook photos (1929-30ff.) make clear that the lower part of the uniform consisted of dark, fairly short–considerably above the knee–shorts. Male managers also disappeared.
- See Women’s State Normal College photo above.
- The situation for men’s teams was different. Several players were college graduates, and men graduates of colleges were much more likely to be hired for attractive professional-level jobs.
- Shattering the Glass, pp. 53f.
- Asheville Citizen-Times, Jan. 25, 1928, p. 13. Beacon Manufacturing Company had moved its blanket-making business from New Bedford MA to Swannanoa, east of Asheville, in 1925.
- Chapter 3 of Grundy’s Learning to Win: Sports, Education, and Social Change in Twentieth-century North Carolina explores these and related factors in a broader frame and more detail than space allows here.