This Memorial Day, as we honor all those who have served and sacrificed on our behalf, let us not forget the American women who fought on the home front during World War II, and whose efforts ultimately helped us defeat the horrors of real fascism. It all started with a fictional gal named “Rosie the Riveter.”
A Tale Of Two Rosies
Whenever we hear the name Rosie the Riveter, we tend to think of Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller’s popular image of a spirited “We Can Do It” WWII-era woman, with her hair wrapped in a white polka-dotted red scarf, rolled up sleeves, and flexed bicep.
But this originally nameless 1942 rendering, part of an early government effort to rally badly needed American female workers, was never intended to be “Rosie.” Our modern Rosie association came about in the 1980s, after the feminist movement adopted the image as a symbol of female empowerment. Today, the icon appears on everything from coffee mugs to beach towels.
The real Rosie, to which the Rosie the Riveter name was first ascribed, made its debut via the cover of the Memorial Day issue of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. This second Rosie, created by the famous illustrator Norman Rockwell, was a super competent, blue-collar production worker complete with overalls, goggles, and lipstick. The name “Rosie” also appeared for the first time on her lunchbox, suggesting that Rockwell likely drew inspiration from a song called “Rosie the Riveter” that was released earlier that year. The song’s lyrics described the new job roles women would fill: “She’s part of the assembly line. She’s making history, working for victory, Rosie the Riveter.”
What few know is that Rockwell asked his neighbor, Mary Doyle Keefe, a 110-pound, 19-year-old phone operator to be the model for his painting. After paying her $10 (equivalent to about $145 today), he transformed the petite young woman into a brawny wartime production worker holding a riveting machine and bologna sandwich. Interestingly, her pose is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s painting of the righteous Prophet Isaiah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. To further enhance the overall patriotic image, the American flag was positioned waving in the background and under Rosie’s penny loafers lies a crushed copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
Given all of this, Rockwell’s Rosie painting couldn’t have been a more serious call to action. It was specifically designed to encourage American women to become wartime workers on the home front while men fought in the war.
And it worked—the number of women in the workforce increased from 15 million in 1943 to 20 million only two years later in 1945.
Something Greater Than Themselves
“Rosies” came from all walks of life, as well as all racial and ethnic backgrounds. They took to the factories, munitions plants, and shipyards in support of the war effort, making Rosie the Riveter the new American female ideal—loyal, efficient, and patriotic.
“You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job,” recalls Sybil Lewis, a black Rosie who worked at Lockheed Aircraft as a riveter. “This was the beginning of women’s feeling that they could do something more.”
By the end of the war, women had mass-produced some 80,000 landing craft, 100,000 tanks and armored vehicles, 200,000 airplanes, 6 million tons of bombs, 41 billion rounds of ammunition, and so much more.
But did you know that black and white Rosies often worked side by side during the war? Despite widespread Jim Crow laws at the time, industrialists like Henry Kaiser established an integrated workforce of over 100,000 Americans, “many of whom were African Americans, Latinos, American Indians and Asian Americans.”
In fact, in 1941, after civil rights activists threatened to march in protest of racial discrimination in industry and the military, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt went against the wishes of his own party and issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting workplace discrimination. This included repealing much of fellow Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s longstanding pro-segregation policies in the defense industries and federal government jobs.
To enforce the order, FDR also set up the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This government initiative, along with wartime necessity to mobilize workers, transformed the workforce. Eventually, this would help lay the groundwork for post-war civil rights legislation which didn’t start in earnest for the Democratic Party until Harry S. Truman was elected president in 1946, but not without the usual opposition by Democrats, as history has shown.
Unity, Determination, And Sacrifice
However, despite FDR’s efforts, life wasn’t perfect for the Rosies. Some women were passed up for certain jobs because of their race, and women were usually paid less than men. Although these are important stories to tell, they are usually told in isolation from a broader, more complex picture of unity, determination, and sacrifice that characterized these women during a time when playing the victim card wasn’t going to cut it.
- Ollie M. Hawkins (black Rosie, shipyards of San Francisco Bay): “When you got off work, you’d go to Oakland to go shopping, and everywhere you’d go, you’d see ‘White Trade Only’ signs. … In the shipyards you didn’t run into that prejudice because everyone was working side by side for the same purpose.”
- Charlyne Harper (white Rosie, Welder at Kaiser Shipyard, Richmond): “I am real proud of the women of my day. We just knew that war had to be won, and we were proud to do our part. And the women just flocked there. … So everybody back then helped win that war. But the men on the front lines was the ones that sacrificed. … There were some women in service at that time, but most of them were in the war effort. They did something. Everybody did something and sacrificed. It was no big deal to do without new shoes or certain foods. … Everybody was in it together. We all had a rough time.”
- Sybil Lewis (black Rosie, Lockheed Aircraft in Los Angeles): “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.”
- Esther Horne (white Rosie, machine operator, Gussack’s Machine Products, Long Island City): “Lunch hour, for the longest time, we would sit around, sit on crates with our long work aprons and pants, or whatever and one of the bosses, Moe Kammer, would read a scene from “Othello” and we would discuss it. Remember the differences in education? I saw all around me people, some of whom had never finished eighth grade, entranced. We all went to see “Othello.” And we all saw Paul Robeson and Uta Hagen, and Jose Ferrer as Iago. For a factory!”
- Wanita Allen (black Rosie, Ford’s River Rouge foundry, Detroit): “It was good to work with people. It’s something about that camaraderie that you really need on a job. If the job is hard and everyone is working, you don’t mind. It’s just that sharing and all doing it together.”
This Is What Fighting Fascism Looks Like
Women’s entrance into the workforce during WWII served as a springboard for the women’s movement decades later. Interestingly, many of today’s feminists are now critical of Rosie the Riveter as a symbol of female empowerment. They point out that as the soldiers returned home, women were either forced back into low paying traditional female jobs or returned to being homemakers who raised their children.
However, this is a singular view of the Rosie experience during an important time of transition for women. The fact is, they made a variety of choices for themselves and their families. Some stayed in the work force, while others chose a more domestic lifestyle. Women also fought to keep their jobs after the war or they took advantage of new opportunities. Elinor Otto was a Rosie who managed to keep the same job as a riveter for 70 years!
Still, the war changed everything for the Rosies, giving them a sense of pride and purpose and indeed a sense of empowerment. They proved to the world that American women of all walks of life can unite and do whatever it takes to save themselves and the rest of the world. They helped preserve life and liberty for all Americans, and they did it with the utmost strength, honor, and courage. That was American female exceptionalism in action against real fascism.