I have been unpacking and looking at books from my father's and mother's libraries. It's been a drawn out affair (my father has been dead five years, my mother almost six). But, that's because I have to sit and look at so many of the books.
Today, I opened a book from my father's library. First published in 1946, it is called, The Natural History of Nonsense. It's a very, very uneven book; let's summarize it to say, the author, Bergen Evans, doesn't like superstitious and uneducated people who accept myths about life. In his opening paragraph in a chapter on "Preconception," as he leads up to the point of women's gullibility, he provides examples of women's suspicion of working in unsafe factories.
He writes, "In the summer of 1943, absenteeism among women war workers reached such proportion that sabotage was suspected and agents of the F.B.I. were called in to investigate. Their finding, confirmed by other government and private agencies, was that women were being driven from the lathes and benches by strange sexual fears. Some feared sterility from welding or from working with ultraviolet or infrared rays. Some feared the riveting caused cancer of the breast. A wholly new and fictitious disorder--'riverter's ovaries'--had been invented. And scores of women engaged in filling fire extinguishers for airplanes had quit in panic when it was rumored that the material they were handling, carbon tetrachloride, caused pregnancy."
His point is that the idea that conception is "possible without coition is apparently a deep and persistent fear with women." It's a myth, he says. For example, he says, no, women can't conceive after bathing in tubs previously used by men. I remember when, during my first year at Yale Divinity School, I did field work at an abortion clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and a girl of 13 who was getting an abortion had never had intercourse. She had gotten pregnant from her boyfriend ejaculating on her thigh. But I digress.
Carbon tetrachloride was found, in the 1940s, to cause severe adverse health effects (to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys, and suspected of causing cancer). Ultraviolet and infrared rays do have health effects http://www.twi-global.com/technical-knowledge/faqs/health-and-safety-faqs/faq-ultraviolet-visible-and-infrared-radiation-hazards/.
What if the women recognized they were being put in unsafe situations, but the language of naming what was unsafe was not available to them? I think of activists of later decades, from Karen Silkwood to Lois Gibbs, working to have issues of safety taken seriously and the resistance they met.
I remember reading a book in the 1980s, Women's Health, Women's Work (that, Ironically, I cannot find as I unpack these other books). It argued that women should not have to choose between working in unsafe conditions or not working. The experts who dubbed the problem of WW2 women factory workers, "Riveter's Ovaries," not only created fragmenting language about women concerned about their safety (see The Sexual Politics of Meat), but positioned themselves in a hierarchy over the women: they had knowledge, the women were ignorant. Note the judgment in Evans's language: "Strange sexual fears."
I could say more, but I have other boxes of books to unpack.