By Erica Plouffe

Evening News Staff

Taken from The Southbridge Evening News Special DOD Supplement dated Friday, March 31, 2000:

SOUTHBRIDGE - These are the women of the AO. Not all of them, just a few who happened to be working at the cement building one day in the 1940s and probably spent 10 minutes of their lunchtime to pose for the photo. These are women who were first-generation Americans or who came here with their families from Canada, Poland, Albania, Italy and Greece to earn a decent living at the largest employer in central Massachusetts.

WWII Photo - AO Archive

Throughout the years, their numbers were many. Their lives were full, helping out in the workforce as well as in the home, spending their hard-earned dollars on picture shows, new hats, and more often than not, dinner for their families or shoes for their younger siblings.

In the 1940s, when companies just began to hire women to take the place of men as they went off to serve in World War II, there were women, such as Anna Giard, Marion Rich and Eva Renaud who celebrated their 20th and 30th years of service at the AO. Other women, such as Frances Sherburne, Cpl. Beatrice Paul and Pvt. Mildred Wheeler, decided to leave their post at the AO to join the war effort.

Wheeler was not forgotten by the folks back home, as described in this account from the AO News' "Steno" column on Oct. 19, 1945:

"T/5 Mildred Wheeler is our G.I. Jane of the week, and she happens to be our first Servicewoman to appear in this column. Pvt. Wheeler is stationed at the Army General Hospital at Camp Edwards, where she is doing physical therapy work which she finds very interesting as well as important. Mildred left for the service on Sept. 8, 1944, and prior to her entry, worked in Department A1N. She is eligible for discharge, but because her work is so urgent and she is needed at the hospital, she plans to remain in service a while longer", states an article from the AO News.

The American Optical News, founded in 1940, featured engagement announcements, war news, sports team coverage, recipes, polls, profiles and news about the AO. The publication not only showed signs of a strong female workforce in its photographs, articles and announcements, it was run by women, including editor Louise Hicks, Gloria Bachand and Jean Olson in the 1950s.

"It was like a family at the AO in those years. Everyone was friendly. Thursday nights downtown, you'd bump into each other. Women were a good part of the AO. My first boss was a woman. I was an errand boy," said former AO worker George Vasil.

Vasil, who started his career at the AO delivering messages from one end of the plant to the other, remembers scores of women sitting at their stenographer's desks in the transcribing room.

"They typed letters for the office people, who would speak into Dictaphones. There was a whole room full of women. All they did was type," said Vasil.

Apparently, the "Steno Girls" as they were appropriately nick-named, did a bit more than just type others' words all day. In a letter signed "The Steno", a bit of local AO color can be seen in a Feb. 9, 1945 edition of the American Optical News:

"Last, but quite important to the AO girls was the mad rush for ÔBelle Sharmeer stockings. It so happens that Lenti's Shoe Store is unfortunate enough to be the only store in town selling the popular brand. Lenti's telephone rings constantly from the 20th of the month until the stockings come in, sometimes several days later. Once, the operator at the main switchboard immediately after receiving the number Ò580MÓ so many times, politely answered, If you're inquiring for Belle Sharmeers they haven't come in yet. Delivery this month was five days late and the girls were afraid they were going to be left without them. But soon they found a solution and sent their boy-friends or husbands to obtain them. Leave it to the women to always get what they want!"

One woman, Dr. Estelle Glancy, who was not a stenographer or in quality control was among those who spent their time in the research lab, said Vasil. She was instrumental in doing the math work with Dr. Tillyer, in designing the Tillyer lens, he recalled.

Whether they served in steno, quality control, production or in the lab, women were an integral part of the American Optical.

Return to AO History