How did a woman who became known as “Rosie the Riveter,” wearing a red-spotted headscarf and blue denim work shirt, declaring “We Can Do It!” become a feminist icon for generations of American women?
Today she has a museum named after her – the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, in Richmond, California, home to the legendary Kaiser shipyards. Eventually producing 747 ships in less than four years, a feat unequaled anywhere in the world before or since, the Richmond shipyards proved a magnet for women seeking jobs after America’s entry into the war in 1941. And on a recent sun-drenched California morning, Rosie even inspired more than 2,000 women, men, kids (and dogs!) dressed as their icon to gather on the shores of San Francisco Bay in an attempt to make it into the Guinness Book of records.
“Rosie the Riveter” was in fact a fictional character who attained mythic fame with the passage of time. Decades would pass before “Rosie” came to symbolize the entry of women into U.S. manufacturing industries during the war years, estimated to have reached several millions by 1944.
Some women were barely of age, leaving home for the first time, traveling from distant states in search of a job. At the time the most popular graduation gift in the segregated South was said to be a ticket to California. Many others arrived with families, seeking a better life and an escape from Depression era poverty.
Not that there was any guarantee of a job when they arrived, let alone a place to stay. Discrimination against hiring women was widespread, and worse if you were black or another minority. Men declared they wouldn’t work alongside a woman, black or white, and if the job required a union card, it was often a battle to get one. Some union halls posted a sign, “No women or blacks wanted.”
Few of these women had so much as held a hammer before, and were initially derided by the men who worked beside them. But the need for workers was great and women become expert welders, machinists, electricians and more. For black women, traditionally destined for domestic service, employment opportunities were especially significant. “Hitler was the one who got us out of the white folks’ kitchen,” declared one such worker, Fanny Christina Hill.
And the pay was a whole lot better. A welder could make a dollar an hour with time and a half on Saturdays, and double time on Sundays. She had to wear leathers, and a scarf to cover her head and neck to protect from burning sparks. As she grew in experience, men grudgingly admitted that she was doing a better job than most men.
Which brings us back to the red spotted headscarf and the picture of a young woman flexing a little muscle. The iconic image dates back to a motivational poster displayed to Westinghouse employees of both sexes for a scant two weeks in 1943. A popular song entitled “Rosie the Riveter” was playing on the radio, and the American artist Norman Rockwell had inscribed the name “Rosie” on a woman’s lunch box for a Saturday Evening Post cover illustration. At the time, however, the familiar image wasn’t associated with the name “Rosie.” It was not until the poster was rediscovered in the early 1980’s that it became famous as a feminist call to action, and the young woman somewhat erroneously called “Rosie the Riveter.”
The original “Rosies” needed that headscarf for practical reasons and the feisty survivors of that era, now in their 90’s, have fascinating stories to share of their trailblazing experiences. However, unlike the “Rosie” in the poster declaring “We Can Do It!” they can truly claim, “We Did It!”
This article was written by Rosemary Nightingale who is a Docent at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in California.