The Historical Lessons of Rosie the Riveter

Photo of Women Working in a Factory During World War II

I started reading when I was a toddler, and it has long been both escapism and passion to me.  However, whereas I used to devour fiction, my love for the written word has expanded in the past year to include historical works of non-fiction.  If you think of the books in the world as existing in a candy store, you could say that I’d been enjoying one floor my entire life, blissfully unaware that thousands of equally delightful options existed.

One of the most important things I’ve learned is how little I really know, and this is as true of some of the historical bases for feminism as it is anything else.

I’d heard of Rosie the Riveter, of course, and had read a fair amount of feminist literature (from Mary Wollstonecraft to Andrea Dworkin) in college, but the “touched upon” nature that one receives in a survey class is completely different than diving …

… full-long into a defining time and history and considering its repercussions in 2011.

Consider this—how many of you knew that women have World War II to thank for opening up the workforce to them?  A year ago, I would have said, “Yeah, they had to let women do jobs that men had historically done because men were all off at war … haven’t you seen A League of Their Own?”

I understand better now, particularly when you consider that six million women entered the workplace for the first time during WWII.

That’s huge, in large part because there was an expectation that these women would do their part for the war effort by working in factories creating both consumer goods and war supplies until the war was over, then going back to their traditional “housewife” role or more acceptable female employment like nursing or teaching.

Even before they entered the workforce, though, women had to receive specialized job training and often even relocate … oh, and of course overcome the conventional wisdom that they just couldn’t hack it.

From Peoria Magazines:

To persuade women that they could handle such jobs, munitions making was likened to running a sewing machine or vacuum cleaner—activities with which women were familiar and proficient, according to Dr. Stacey Robertson, director of the women’s studies program at Bradley University. An American War Manpower Campaign in 1943, for example, featured a billboard that read, “If you’ve used an electric mixer in your kitchen, you can learn to run a drill press.” Even Caterpillar posted advertisements in local papers encouraging women to join the company. Some read: “Women Help Yourself and Uncle Sam by Getting a Good Job at Caterpillar,” “Help the Boys Overseas by Working at Caterpillar,” and “Women You Can Learn to Weld at Caterpillar.”

Haha, that’s too funny!  Electric mixer … drill press.  Marketing was truly a force to be reckoned with even then. Oh, and it certainly gives some interesting perspective on vintage ads.

I’d long had the impression that wartime women went to work out of a love for country, but it turns out that there was another, arguably stronger motivation: cold, hard cash.

Jobs previously held by men paid much more than those typically held by women, and women who were struggling to make ends meet were quick to jump at the chance to earn more money.

Manufacturing jobs allowed women to move up the ranks, accepting more responsibility as they went, but defense jobs were even better, as they paid 40 percent more than jobs that produced consumer goods. These jobs were primarily filled by white women. “African American women were pretty much squeezed out of these jobs,” noted Robertson. They took on the jobs that white women had left, receiving slightly more pay than at their original positions, which had consisted primarily of service and agricultural jobs.

Overall, women were paid less than their male counterparts who left for war; the rationale, said Robertson, was lack of experience. “By and large, pay depends on not only the type of job you’re working, but on experience, so certainly women with less experience, say, as welders or riveters, would be paid less.”

You know, it’s very interesting that we’re fed this whole “America is a melting pot” thing in school, yet the truth of the matter is that there has always been a hierarchy of power, and I suppose there always will be.  I  mean, think about it, white women are below men in the great scheme of things, yet when they are given the opportunity to move on up, their spot on the totem pole is replaced by African-American women.

And of course not all men went to war … and their reactions toward working side by side a force of females were not always positive.

Despite filling a critical niche during the war, women were often met with hostility by the men they worked for and alongside. “Men were concerned that following the war, the women would find these jobs satisfying in the way that they found them satisfying,” explained Robertson.

This fear turned out to be justified, and it’s a fear that echoes in the workplace even today. Women had been given a taste of controlling the direction of their own lives through making their own money, and giving this up understandably left a bad taste in a lot of mouths.

Many women returned to their lives as mommy and wife without complaint, a large number went back to the more “traditional” careers, but some would never forget their taste of what amounted to freedom.

Societal norms were altered to fit a certain workplace need during the war.  Although these norms reverted when there was again an influx of able-bodied men to fill the factories, there were many women that saw the opportunities available to them.

In other words, if they were good enough to do the work when it was a necessity, they were good enough to do the job any time.  This was a lesson that endured, a message that was unforgettable to the collective inner psyche of women and led to the so-called “Quiet Revolution” … and ultimately to employment opportunities that are essentially equal today.

Of course, I’m a teacher, a job that would have been “acceptable” for me as a woman to hold even in the early 1900s, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt …

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13 thoughts on “The Historical Lessons of Rosie the Riveter

  1. This is probably going to sound like a movie script,but it’s true. My mother was a riveter and met my father the night before he left for the South Pacific.He walked into a dance hall,and she nudged her girlfriend and said she just saw her husband walk through the door. They corresponded by letters for two years and she married him within 48hrs of him returning to Seattle. When we took him to the graveyard three years ago,she stayed home and read his love letters.

    • My maternal grandfather was from Seattle and that story sounds like he and my grandmother’s courtship. How sweet :D He was a Sea Bee stationed in Guam and the Phillipines during the Korean War. The women in my family during that era lived in rural areas where one lived off the land. The depression was a peripheral issue for them. Life went on and everybody ate well because there were goats to milk and butter to churn, chickens for eggs, deer meat and wild berries to can in mason jars. Most things that were needed were traded and neighbors shared what they had. But a strong woman was in that home, working morning til night, washing, cooking, tending to animals, children and their man. Without those pioneering women, America simply wouldn’t be what it is today. I’m just as proud of those Rosies who stayed home as those who went to conventional jobs. I’m sure they found it to be less work than what awaited them at home.

      And that teaching position that was acceptable for women was often not a paid position, but use of a room in the school house and paid in goods. Teachers were also expected to be unmarried and childless. So even that has changed :D

    • You are lucky to be here Joey the way MacArthur was killing Marines in WWII.
      Thank God for your folks – they saved the world. Clearly, genius skipped a generation in your case.

  2. I kinda figured this one out on my own when I was in my early 20′s.
    It was an exciting realization.
    My husband and I were talking about the women’s lib movement in the late 60′s and I realized that those women owed their grandmother’s more than they knew.
    Not only did they learn that they could work and wanted to keep working after the war, they had tasted the freedom of independence.
    Not only could they make money, but they could decide how to spend it. They had to do everything for themselves and the idea of being put back in their “place” after the war didn’t sit well with all of them.
    In essence, women learned that they could take out the trash themselves.

  3. My grandmother never drove a car, never used a washing machine or a dryer, and never washed or “set” her own hair. But….every morning, she walked us to school and continued off to work, while my grandfather, 16 years older than her and retired, went home to clean, shop, and prepare dinner. We’d hop in the car to pick her up in the evening and she’d tell us about her day. I’d get the chance to go into work with her on school holidays and summers…and actually do the work right along with her (she was an accountant among other things). She’d play store and cards with us to hone our math skills. As she hand-twisted every ounce of water from a queen size wool blanket at the sink, she’d talk to me about her version, very different from my mom’s, or being a woman. She was a true feminist. I love and miss her every day of my life…her lessons have fueled my beliefs every since. This was her version of “Rosie”…modeling a different life-style for her granddaughter.
    My mom, stayed home after leaving a full-scholarship to a prestigous Boston University to have me (btw), and cooked, cleaned and had babies. Next to my career woman Grammie, she was not as glamorous. But as I look back on the mark she made on the lives of others, they are equals…different, but equals. Celebrate being a woman, no matter how you choose to live it out.

  4. Pingback: Super-Barack Notwithstanding, Feminism Needs a Shot in the Arm – Zelda Lily, Feminism in a Bra

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