By Seth Daniel
When Peggy (Merigo) Citarella took out the classified advertisements shortly after graduating from Somerville High School in the late 1930s and while working in a candy factory in Charlestown, she noticed that the jobs for men paid a lot better than the women’s jobs – and she especially noticed that welders were needed and made a lot of money.
Despite the fact that it was the early 1940s and welding wasn’t considered “women’s work,” Citarella began pursuing a career in welding that would eventually take her to the Charlestown Navy Yard where she would become the first female rated welder in the Yard during World War II – constructing hundreds of projects and working some of the toughest jobs available alongside men who at first did not trust her skills – but soon came to realize she was the best welder in the Yard.
On Friday, Aug. 26, Citarella, 95, returned to the Yard for the first time in decades to make an appearance for a presentation on her historic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ type of work done during World War II, when – in the absence of men who were off at war – women made up 20 percent of the workforce and took on jobs that they were historically blocked out of. Those jobs included welding.
“It’s so fantastic to be back,” said Citarella following the presentation by St. Michael’s University student Julia Wagner. “This was quite a busy place when I worked here and I was good at it too. I enjoyed doing things with my hands, and welding was very hands-on.”
Citarella, after reading the classified advertisements, had applied for several welding apprentice jobs as the war broke out, and was laughed out of pretty much every shop.
However, she was, miraculously, able to convince a man at the Newton Trade School to teach her how to weld, and she was so good that she eventually became a teacher.
“I asked him to teach me and he said, ‘Ordinary, nice girls don’t learn how to weld,’” recalled Wagner in her presentation on Citarella’s life. “Then Peggy told him, ‘I’m not ordinary and I’m not nice and I want to weld.’ So, he decided to let her stay at the school and to teach her how to weld. She was exceptional at it and she loved it and did very well there.”
Eventually, she also became a teaching assistant at the school, and would tell students that she wouldn’t tolerate sloppy work and that they should not ask her out on a date.
After the war broke out, Citarella heard that the Navy Yard might be taking on women for some of the jobs there to help out with the war effort. Women all over the country were entering the workforce for the first time and getting ‘War Jobs,’ jobs that were supposed to help the war effort and bring husbands and boyfriends back home sooner.
That said, jobs such as welding ships and pipes together were still not such fertile territory for a female ‘Rosie the Riveter.’
“Peggy went to the Charlestown Navy Yard and asked for a welding job,” said Wagner. “They told her ‘no’ and that they did not take women welders. Peggy demanded to talk to a supervisor. She showed him what she could do and as a result of that, she was hired on the spot. She worked 13 months straight without a day off…Peggy was the first woman to receive an official welder’s ‘rating’ at the Charlestown Navy Yard.”
Citarella often surprised the other men in the Yard, raising up her welder’s mask and seeing them startled when they realized they’d been working alongside a woman.
“Peggy always asked them why they were so startled when she would put up her mask,” said Wagner. “They would say, ‘We’re not used to seeing anyone with lipstick under a helmet.’”
Through it all, Citarella climbed the ranks and took on the toughest jobs in the Yard during her time there, eventually taking on the demanding task of welding pipe.
“Her supervisors would test her and she always came through,” said Wagner. “She never turned down a job even if it was dangerous. She did what supervisors said and never questioned it.”
However, once the war effort was not needed as much and World War II was coming to a close, men returned from fighting overseas and they were ready to take back their jobs. Welders and skilled women workers in the Yard knew their days were numbered, and that they were expected to return home and assume domestic duties, or go back to the workplace to the “women’s jobs.” “As soon as the war ended, their time as welders were done and they were asked to leave, including Peggy,” said Wagner. “Peggy said she was disappointed, but respected the decision and knew the men had to return to their jobs. Peggy never welded professionally again, but that never stopped her from welding around the house.” Citarella and her late husband, Armand, were married in Somerville and then moved to Burlington, VT, where he pursued a teaching position. Citarella still makes her home in Burlington, VT, but said she has great memories of her time here.
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