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Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II

Transcript of video presentation by Sheridan Harvey

Rosie the Riveter is the female icon of Word War II. She is the home-front equivalent of G.I. Joe. She represents any woman defense worker. And for many women, she's an example of a strong, competent foremother.

Many of us have an image in our minds when we hear "Rosie the Riveter." Don't you? The woman in the bandanna rolling up the sleeve on her raised bent arm.

The artist Norman Rockwell is closely associated with Rosie, but how many of you have heard of J. Howard Miller? Yet it was Miller who created this image.

I found something unexpected when I turned to Norman Rockwell's Rosie. It appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943--the Memorial Day issue. This was not the tidy image in my mind. This Rosie is brawny and larger-than-life.

In my surprise at the two images, I decided to look into the development of the myth of Rosie the Riveter.

The chronology isn't always clear, but it seems that about 1942, an artist at Westinghouse named J. Howard Miller created "We Can Do It!," probably as part of his company's war work. The federal government encouraged industries to try to get more people to go to work. "We Can Do It!" initially had no connection with someone named Rosie.

The next step in the Rosie myth was apparently the song "Rosie the Riveter" by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, released in early 1943.

Some of the lyrics go:

"All the day long,
Whether rain or shine,
She's a part of the assembly line.
She's making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter.
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
Sitting up there on the fuselage.
That little girl will do more than a male will do."

And skipping to the end:

"There's something true about,
Red, white, and blue about,
Rosie the Riveter."

So you have this song appearing in early 1943. Then a few months later on May 29th you get the Rockwell cover.

It seems likely that Rockwell had heard the song, since he wrote the name "Rosie" on the lunch box in his picture.

This was a big boost to the Rosie story. In the 1940s the circulation of the Saturday Evening Post was about four million. And when a Rockwell drawing was going to be on the cover, they published extra issues. He was the most popular illustrator in the country.

Two weeks after his cover appeared on newsstands, the press picked up the story of a woman named Rose Hickey. She and her partner drove a record number of rivets into the wing of a TBM Avenger at a Tarrytown, New York, plant. Other women named Rose gained media attention before the end of the war. Rose Monroe, a riveter in Michigan, made a film about selling war bonds and then a commercial movie called Rosie the Riveter.

Sybil Lewis, an African-American riveter for Lockheed Aircraft in Los Angeles, gives this description of riveting:

"The women worked in pairs. I was the riveter and this big, strong, white girl from a cotton farm in Arkansas worked as the bucker. The riveter used a gun to shoot rivets through the metal and fasten it together. The bucker used a bucking bar on the other side of the metal to smooth out the rivets. Bucking was harder than shooting rivets; it required more muscle. Riveting required more skill."

While the Rockwell image was widely disseminated during the war, later copyright restrictions meant it was less frequently reproduced. The Miller image was without such restraints and appears everywhere--mugs, magnets, t-shirts, and mouse pads.

I'd like to take a close look at the Rockwell illustration. This is a good picture to "read."

I was first struck by the fact that she is big and dirty. She's oversized, with working-class brawn. She wears goggles and a shield. In reality, it's unlikely that she would have worn both.

The leather arm-band provides protection on the job.

She has no wedding ring.

On her lapel you can see various pins--for blood donation, victory, her security badge.

She's wearing overalls. Women didn't wear pants in public much before World War II; but during the war it became common to see women on the way to and from work in overalls or trousers.

She's wearing loafers. Only after July 1943 were safety shoes with metal toes produced for women. There had been no need to manufacture these shoes in women's sizes before because women didn't customarily work in dangerous jobs where such shoes were needed. Most women wore their own shoes.

She cradles a very large riveting gun in her lap, and it links visually to Adolf Hitler's book, Mein Kampf, beneath her feet. The implication is clear: through her defense job, she will help to crush Hitler.

The American flag background, red, white, and blue, adds to the patriotism of the cover.

Rosie is powerful, competent, and womanly.

But there are contradictions in the image:

She's masculine: look at the size of her arms, which are a real focus of the cover.

She's working with a very large and heavy riveting gun.

She's dirty; she's doing a man's job.

She's wearing overalls, men's clothes.

Yet she's feminine:

She's wearing rouge and lipstick. Makeup is essential to women's mental health, according to some articles of the time.

Her compact and handkerchief peek out of her pocket; she has nail polish on; her curly red hair and upturned nose feminize her; her visor almost looks like a halo, providing an angelic side to this strong woman.

She is depicted eating, like these real women, an activity linked with the home and thus showing her domestic side: women/food/home. She isn't seen working.

When the image appeared that 1943 Memorial Day, some viewers recognized a model for Rosie. Look at this: Michelangelo's Prophet Isaiah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The resemblance is remarkable. I like the way he put her ham sandwich in his hand. Today, few people catch the Michelangelo connection, but the images of Rosie continue to be very common.

In recent years scholars have shown interest in more than the myth. They wondered who were the real women we lump together under this easy phrase. Oral historians have tracked down some of the World War II women defense workers and recorded their tales. One collection is forty-five volumes long.

When I went looking, I found plenty of facts about these women.

The big changes that brought them into war work began in 1942. Men were going to war and industries were switching to war production. When in need, industries decided they were willing to hire women: after all, they wouldn't get drafted. At first, there was lots of reluctance on the parts of managers, husbands, male workers, and many women, too.

Where did the women workers come from? It seems they came from three main groups.

First, women already working changed to the higher-paying, patriotic, defense jobs. So many women left laundries in 1942 that six hundred closed.

The second group included women who had worked, but lost their jobs during the Depression or when their factories converted from civilian to war work.

And the third group, which attracted the most attention, was first-time workers. About six million women entered the workforce for the first time. Many of these were married, white, middle-class women who had to be encouraged to go out to work. Working outside the home was a new idea for them.

To motivate them, between 1942 and 1944, there was what's been called an "intense courtship of women by employers and government." The U.S. Office of War Information produced a Magazine War Guide which gave publishers of magazines ideas, information, and slogans for their publications.

This was a government-led effort to recruit women workers, to get women out of the home. Magazines were to write articles that appealed to the desire for glamor and good pay, but even more to patriotism. "Women, you could hasten victory by working and save your man." Rosie's appearance on the Memorial Day cover of the Saturday Evening Post implied that her work might help save soldiers' lives.

For September 1943, the Magazine War Guide recommended that all magazines participate in a "Women at Work Cover Promotion." This was to emphasize that many kinds of employment, not just defense and factory work, were "war jobs."

The guide gave examples such as women grocery clerks, elevator operators, telephone operators, farmers, ticket agents, and many others, saying that if women didn't do them, quote, "Our civilian life would break down." These were "necessary civilian jobs" and women were to be urged to take them.

The slogan for this promotion was "The More Women at Work the Sooner We Win." For its part in this campaign, the Saturday Evening Post turned again to Norman Rockwell.

Rockwell showed a "liberty girl" with the tools of a great many civilian jobs. This woman in patriotic clothes is a nurse, a farmer, a conductor, a mechanic, a telephone operator, and many other things. Most people aren't familiar with this image, which appeared only three months after Rosie. It just hasn't resonated the same way.

There is still much debate on the long-term effects of women's war work on the position of women after the war. Did their working sow the seeds of the second wave of feminism? Maybe, but Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique isn't published till 1963. Did women return to their homes and families and become 1950s TV mothers like June Cleaver on Leave it to Beaver? No. The number of working women never again fell to pre-war levels.

The recognition that middle-class married women could work and run a home was significant. Of course, poorer women had always done so.

The women themselves tell us some of the effects:

"My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, 'You will never want to go back to being a housewife.' At that time I didn't think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did. . . . at Boeing I found a freedom and an independence that I had never known. After the war I could never go back to playing bridge again, being a club woman . . . when I knew there were things you could use your mind for. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up." Inez Sauer, Boeing tool clerk.

"You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man's job. This was the beginning of women's feeling that they could do something more." Sybil Lewis, Lockheed riveter.

You, too, can do something more. Rosie's story continues and you can contribute to it. If you know a "Rosie the Riveter," a woman war worker, you can interview her for the Library of Congress. Through the Veterans History Project in the American Folklife Center, the Library is gathering oral histories and other personal narratives and documents of those involved in America's wars, both in the military and on the home front.

See the Veterans History Web site to listen to their stories, and to learn how to collect their oral histories.

You will help ensure that we never forget the real Rosies who contributed to our victory in the Second World War.

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  October 6, 2008
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