The story of the first woman in New Orleans to be a dockworker.
It is interesting to see the opportunities women have been given that get them even an inch closer to breaking gender norms. Just a year before women won the right to vote in the United States, Mrs. Mary Dupree, a 51 year old mother of two, did what no woman in New Orleans had done before: She was the first woman in New Orleans to do work at the Thalia Street docks, carrying bananas off of ships.
Banana carriers in the United States demanded higher wages from the United Fruit company as the First World War ended, but in New Orleans, the Matranga Brothers, the family-owned business people in charge of the banana docks, claimed that the ruling by the National Adjustment Committee for an increased wage only applied to the docks at Galveston where workers had a union defending them. Unfortunately, New Orleans banana handlers had no organizations like that at the time, so their demands for an increase in pay were not met. The Matranga Brothers continued to defend the decision by explaining how “slowly” the men work, and how they did not deserve the increase to 55 cents an hour, which at the time represented a substantial wage.
The majority of the men working the docks in New Orleans quit after their request was not met, which led to the United Fruit Company putting ads in newspapers aimed at women. This is where Mrs. Mary Dupre enters our story. She was a widowed mother whose “eldest son died while working at an army cantonment. She is left with two young children that need to be provided for,” described the story, good reasons to respond to the ad.
When she arrived to work, the remaining banana carriers cheered her on because of she was “the first woman to do work of this kind in New Orleans.” The article concludes with an implication that more women will be joining Mrs. Mary Dupre soon – although this never happend. The fact that the men working alongside her applauded her appearance rather than looked down on her is thought-provoking, although one might dismiss it as anti-union propaganda being peddled by the Matranga brothers and the Picayune. Nevertheless, Mrs. Mary Dupre’s story tells us a lot about life in 1918. Her family was impacted by the war through the death of her son, she was given the opportunity of a job because of a labor dispute over fair wages – at a time of enormous labor unrest, and she was surprisingly acknowledged as a woman during a peak of the first wave of feminism in the United States.
Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. Unloading bananas from steamer, New Orleans, La. [Between 1900 and 1910] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
“Women at work carrying bananas, others expected,” Times-Picayune, December 5, 1918.