By: Heather Adams
Photo Credit: David W Longendyke
Location: Kingston, NY
Time Period: Oct. 1921
News reporters flocked to Kingston, New York in the fall of 1921 to see Catherine Nelson; a woman with overalls on, and blow torch in hand, who awed everyone around her. Nelson was employed to work as a welder for the construction of the Kingston-Port Ewen Suspension Bridge.
While at work, it was reported that observers wouldn’t be able to tell her apart from any of the men she worked alongside, especially when they hang 300ft in the air. Nelson’s years of experience and undeniable work ethic defied the typical feminine role; however, it appears the tenacious woman did not sacrifice her femininity for her work, as she could be seen embroidering during her break time or caring for her children when she went home. As a widowed young mother, Nelson took up welding to better support herself and her children(1). Nelson was a rarity for the time and, unknowingly, a trailblazer for future generations.
During the First World War, women working mechanical and technical jobs—including welding—was a novelty. However, the dozens of newspaper articles about Catherine Nelson proves it did occur (it became a practice more common in the Second World War)(2). Women were able to learn these mechanical and technical trades while working in shipyards. Typically, these working women were poor or young, single women and worked in the textile industry or factories.
During the time of the Kingston-Port Ewen Bridge’s construction there were many widowed women because of World War I. Though Catherine Nelson was widowed prior to the First World War, she was an example of the new generation of women who did not sit idly in their prescribed gender role(3).
Catherine Nelson’s work as an electric welder is another significant case that deepens the history of women defying gender norms. Today American women and girls are allowed to pursue opportunities that were once exclusive to men because of these historic women. From welding careers to being star high school quarterbacks, the limits on what females are allowed to do are becoming less and less. Nelson represents women both of past and present generations, who personify what it means to be a “strong, independent woman” by overcoming obstacles. By turning Nelson from just the whispers of local lore and into a solid identity, we begin to validate the long legacy of strong women in the Hudson Valley.