Who Was Rosie the Riveter?: The American Factory Women of World War II

Posted by on Jul 1st, 2012 | 1 Comment
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When most people think of American women during World War II, the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ comes to mind. Rosie was the modern factory girl – a woman who could effortlessly bridge the gap between masculine and feminine. The war industry during WWII gave women the opportunity to earn their own living and contribute to the war effort. After the war, many female workers fought to remain in their jobs, while others used their earnings to establish households. The imagery of “Riveters” we are accustomed to served as allegory; the war propaganda used “Rosie” as a metaphorical representation of the millions of women (of all colors and socio-economic classes) who took action during war time when patriarchal order was relaxed. These women joined the work force in order to help their country, to gain the benefits of employment, and to improve their quality of life. “Riveters” had a vast range of experiences in the wartime industry that were largely determined by race and geographic location, yet the majority of women who worked in factories during World War II expressed a profound sense of personal accomplishment and newfound self-worth that had lasting effects on both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Rights Movement.

Fast Facts about Women in the Wartime Industry

  • By 1944, 1 out of 5 defense workers was a woman who had recently been a student
  • By 1944 1 out of 3 defense workers were former full-time homemakers
  • World War II was the first time in U.S. history married women outnumbered single women workers. ((Sherna Berger Gluck, Rosie the Riveter Revisited (New York: Penguin Group, 1987), 12-13.))
  • The largest employers of women during World War II were airplane manufacturers such as Boeing Aircraft, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, and Douglass Aircraft Company. Other major employers included Chrysler, Goodyear, and Ford.
  • Between 1940 and 1960 the number of working women doubled, rising from 15% of the workforce to 30%. Working mothers increased by 400%.
  • Most trade unions maintained separate seniority lists for men and women but by 1944 more than 3 million women made up 22% of all trade union membership in the U.S.
  • A survey taken immediately after WWII by the Bureau of Women Workers revealed 75% of women workers preferred to remain employed outside their homes ((Ruth Rosen, The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America (New York: Viking, 2000), 20.))
  • By 1955, more women worked in the labor force than during World War II

During the Great Depression, (1929-World War II) women were discouraged from working so the few jobs available could go to male breadwinners. In order to encourage women into the workforce, the federal government’s War Manpower Commission, War Production Board, and defense industries launched a massive campaign centered around recruitment posters. The substantial need for war supplies coupled with the staggering number of men drafted into the war created mass vacancies in factories across the nation.
Economist Theresa Wolfson described the tension women felt in 1942 after the Bombing of Pearl Harbor:

 “It is not easy to forget the propaganda of two decades [during the Great Depression] even in the face of a national emergency such as a great war. Women themselves doubted their ability to do a man’s job. Married women with families were loath to leave their homes; society had made so little provision for the thousands of jobs that a homemaker must tackle. And when they finally come into the plants, the men resent them as potential scabs.”

To entice these women to join the work force, the image of “Rosie the Riveter” was created. Painted by Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. This interpretation of Rosie was firmly entrenched in the concept of women entering the workforce as their patriotic duty. Note that Rosie is stomping on a copy of Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s 1925 autobiography and political manifesto. The message was clear: although men did the physical fighting on the frontlines, women were also doing their part to defeat the enemy.

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter

The Regional Oral History Office at UC Berkeley has conducted a large series of historical interviews with ‘Real Rosies.’ Please enjoy their documentary below.

The most prominent image of Rosie the Riveter popularized in American culture was the version featured on the “We Can Do It!” posters created by the United States government.

“Rosie the Riveter” as portrayed by the United States government during World War II

This Rosie bears a striking likeness to Rockwell’s Rosie, but she is less masculine. While Rockwell’s Rosie has bulging arm muscles, this second Rosie poses with a flexed arm, hair gently tucked into a bandana, and perfectly applied makeup.This version of Rosie the Riveter employed by the United States government was popular because she appealed to the sense of patriotism and common goal of the Second World War while showing that women could retain their femininity and womanhood in their service. Every Rosie the Riveter image played to this prevailing sense of patriotism that abounded in America during World War II. The government and employers utilized patriotism as a primary motivator to recruit women for war work. Most American women had husbands, brothers, sons, and fiancés fighting on the frontlines of the war, so the women felt compelled to provide to make an equally significant contribution as citizens at home. ((Nancy Baker Wise and Christy Wise, A Mouthful of Rivets (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1994), xi.)) In many cases, women had to continue maintaining their households and caring for their children, while also taking a full-time job.

By 1943 “Rosie the Riveter” was a popular song on the radio.

The government and war materials manufacturers worked to recruit both single and married women. Employers needed to convince women that they were physically capable of factory work and could complete the job with time still available for domestic responsibilities. Many of the war recruitment efforts portrayed war work as an extension of women’s domestic duty. Factories provided female workers with convenient transportation, hot lunches, shopping facilities, and easy banking. ((Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), 275.)) Some employers even provided day care centers at the factory in order to eliminate one of the most significant barriers to recruiting mothers.

Deconstructing the Myth: Voices from Real Women Warriors in the Defense Industry

Eva Chenevert from Detroit, Michigan was interested in war work because she heard through advertising that local companies were hiring women. In 1943, one year after graduating high school, Eva was hired by Desoto Chrysler to make skins for airplanes. In the same year, Eva married her high school sweetheart while he was in the service.

For Eva, war work was a means to earn a living, as well as keep busy and prevent loneliness while her husband was away. Eva not only faced the challenge of being a woman working in a historically male dominated position, but she also fought against racism as an African American in a partially integrated work environment. Eva experienced her first race riot –the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 that resulted in the death of 34 people—while attending high school in Detroit. A few years later, while Eva was working as a Rosie in Detroit, Chrysler was “integrated—to a point.”

Eva worked in an integrated group of workers, but she remembered a number of segregated groups worked within the factory. In terms of gender relations, Eva considered the men in the factory to be more accommodating and cooperative when they worked with female factory employees. Eva worked for Chrysler for less than a year and she earned enough money to purchase war bonds.

By 1945, the final year of World War II, propaganda targeting female war workers took a dramatic turn. Rather than encouraging women out of the home, the new media blitz attempted to embarrass female factory workers and encourage them back into their domestic roles at home. Whereas earlier propaganda aimed to convince women that it was their duty as wives and mothers to work in the factories while the men were away fighting the war, the message twisted as the war dwindled to convince women that it was their responsibility to be good mothers at home now that the men were returning and would need employment.

Poster advertising occupation classes for young Americans in Illinois. (Library of Congress)

The defense products that the women produced during the war, such as military aircraft and bullets, were no longer needed in mass quantities. Additionally, many employers tried to fill factory positions with returning veterans. Many women in factory work were included in massive layoffs or given increasingly difficult work within the factory to motivate the women to quit. For more on the tactics used to push female factory employees out of the workplace at the end of the war, see oral interview with Mary Lawson, Ford employee, as part of the “Call to Duty” introductory video from the Rosie the Riveter World War II American Homefront Project.

Regardless of their ill treatment after the war, the majority of Riveters express in oral history that  interviews the experience gave them a strong sense of accomplishment. One such woman was Arlene Crary of Madison, Wisconsin. Arlene worked for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, Washington while her husband was in the service during World War II.

For almost two years, Arlene worked full-time for Boeing and found a babysitter for her two young daughters. Within the factory, Arlene was valued as an employee because her small size enabled her to work in small spaces, such as the wing of the aircraft. Arlene worked eight hours per day, six days a week, for a pay rate of $1.48 per hour, and she only had to pay the babysitter $10 per week. The money was enough for Arlene to pay for housing in Seattle, purchase war bonds, and save money for the future purchase of property. Arlene returned to her hometown of Madison before her husband returned from the war, and she continued working as a waitress.

Following the war, Arlene divorced her husband, but she used the money earned at Boeing to build a house in Madison. Reflecting on her time in the Boeing factory, Arlene commented that her experience as a Rosie made her more open-minded, less shy, and more aware of the value of teamwork.

During World War II, 22-year-old Beulah Faith took a job reaming tools for transport on a lathe machine at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas. (Library of Congress)

Her time as a Rosie also helped Arlene learn to find people in her life that would truly love and support her. Noting, “I’ve been very fortunate to be an American,” Arlene demonstrated a strong appreciation for personal freedom during her interview. Like many other Riveters, Arlene was able to use the experience of wage earning to improve her life financially, as well as find the courage to establish relationships with a greater level of equality and mutual appreciation.

The end of the war brought about the end the factory careers of many Riveters. However, for many women, as the life and oral testimony of Mary Lawson shows, they did fight gender and racial discrimination to stay employed in her factory. No longer surrounded by fellow Riveters, females who remained in factory work began working side by side with men. Other Riveters, such as Arlene Crary, sought employment in traditionally female occupations such as waitressing and teaching. Another segment of Riveters returned to domestic life as full-time homemakers. No matter their later paths, these true “Rosie the Riveters” were admired for their ability to maintain the homefront while simultaneously contributing to the war production effort. In the process, the Riveters also developed a strong sense of identity as independent, skilled workers.

To listen to the full oral interviews, please see The Real Rosie the Riveter Project, New York University’s Tamiment Library.

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