Book Review: Matthew Basso's "Meet Joe Copper" and Masculinity on the WWII Homefront

By Doctor Comrade

Meet Joe Copper: Masculinity and Race on Montana’s World War II Home Front. By Matthew Basso. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Matthew Basso’s illuminating work Meet Joe Copper deftly critiques the historical narrative that GI Joe and Rosie the Riveter were the principal protagonists of the national wartime drama during World War II. Instead, Basso contends that a third group, the men of the home front, have been completely overlooked. The unquestionably masculine fighting men in Europe and the Pacific had male counterparts who remained in the United States, a group Basso argues constructed their own masculinity in contrast to those soldiers. The subjects of the book are Montana’s white, working-class copper miners and smeltermen who asserted and protected their definitions of masculinity during World War II by opposing the masculinity of soldiering as well as the integration of women and people of color into the workforce (5-6). Against the perceived threats of women and colored workers in the mines and smelters, “Montana’s copper men responded… by following the values embedded in their prewar working-class masculine ideology… [and] they fought a war-long campaign to protect their masculine and white privilege” (6). Also embedded in this ideology was the belief that by supporting the war effort through craft-pride and exclusion, Montana’s miners and smelters were both reaffirming their masculinity and acting patriotically.

Basso’s case study of three mining and smelting communities in Montana illustrates how the masculine ideology that was constructed in the prewar years flourished during World War II. The concept of hegemonic masculinity is critically important to Basso’s argument because he contends that the overarching American narrative of masculinity shifted to mean military service. In response, the Montana mining men reasserted their own masculinity, demonstrating the “relational character of masculine formation and the spatial aspects of how that formation operates” (6). Basso’s theoretical approach is historiographically valuable because it complicates the notions about who the protagonists of the war effort were. Moreover, this perspective problematizes totalizing narratives surrounding wartime agency that have marginalized the men on the home front, like Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. In essence, Basso convincingly shows that “multiple hegemonic masculinities can and often do exist at a given time,” and they manifested in the responses to perceived threats by women and workers of color during the war (6).

Mining communities had established masculine identities in the decades before the war. For example, in Butte, the primary mining operation for the Anaconda Mining Company, miners participated in the hard physical labor of mining, and the “homosocial nature of mining solidified its reputation as archetypal masculine work” (24). The perceived racial homogeneity of the miners also helped define their masculine identity as they contrasted their masculinity against the people who were excluded from mining: women and colored men. Basso also cites the town of Black Eagle, which was friendlier to southeastern European immigrants, but also fostered a sense of masculine identity because the immigrant associations reinforced conservative gender codes (51). In the second part of the book, Basso explicates how the national narrative of masculinity shifted to military service following the outbreak of World War II and the tension that shift created with men of the home front. When the US was preparing to enter the war and draft boards began conscripting Montanans, being a “good American” meant volunteering to serve in uniform (96). As evidence of the miners’ resistance to these shifting definitions, Basso documents their responses to the older and disabled men, men of color, Mexicans, women, and furloughed soldiers when the mining companies threatened to bring in new workers to remedy the labor shortage.

The third part of the book represents the heart of Basso’s argument. He documents a wartime crisis in each town: Butte’s wildcat strike against the prospect of black soldier-miners illustrated how masculinity was inherently tied to racial dominance; Black Eagle’s plant hired women workers but the smeltermen seemed more accepting because they were not as firmly entrenched in independent masculinity and were more comfortable with the loyal home front narrative; and the Anacondan smeltermen’s fight to exclude women and men of color relied on working-class racism (14). In this section, Basso’s outstanding work in the federal archives and the records of the Montana Historical Society forcefully solidify his argument. He relies on books published by the Federal Writers’ Project as well as union meeting transcripts, union newspapers, and oral histories to add depth and dimension to the complicated and intersecting ideologies of the miners. In effect, Basso convincingly illustrates through extensive archival evidence that the miners’ masculine ideology was highly racialized. More importantly, he complicates the national narrative with the miners’ own voices, in addition to crafting a highly nuanced explanation of the paradoxical relationship between patriotism and independence: the miners strongly believed they were supporting the war effort with their labor, but they also believed they had to protect their privileged position by excluding women and workers of color, which could often interfere with the war. Basso untangles this interwoven story by allowing the miners’ own beliefs to clarify the historical record in terms of the interlocking nature of racism, patriotism, and masculinity.

Despite this strength, Basso conflates several factors that would have significantly impacted workers’ lives. On one hand, he erroneously asserts that the draft had a particular effect on masculinity because “all segments of society” were subject to conscription (96). However, other studies have demonstrated that upper-class citizens procured deferments and avoided service at much higher rates, which would have significant impacts on the lower classes. Also, although he excellently describes the interactions between a myriad of ethnic and immigrant groups, another problem with Basso’s work is the two-dimensional portrayal of communities as universally conforming to masculine and racial hierarchies and ideologies. Other works on the labor history of the American West, like Thomas Andrews’ Bancroft-winning Killing for Coal, would contend that mining service underground united miners across ethnic-racial lines, despite ethnic tensions aboveground. However, Meet Joe Copper’s strength does reside in Basso’s skillful analysis of the ideological dividing lines like race, gender, local against national, and union against scab that helped reify wartime masculine ideologies.