Reflections from History and Faith
By Jeff Olson
World War II has been a subject of this column on several occasions. In the course of those articles, I’ve alluded to the fact that our victory in that war should be substantially attributed to the home front where folks in hometown America contributed to the war effort. Taking part in the rationing of items such as food, clothing, shoes, coffee, gasoline, tires, and fuel oil, as well as the purchasing of war bonds and growing victory gardens, were good examples that reflected the commitment of Americans to join our military in the common goal of victory. I can still remember my parents and other family and friends of that generation reminiscing about how we all pulled together and put our country first. Sacrifice was more than just a word to the “Greatest Generation.”
The demands of the war also spurred changes in the labor force of the day. While women working outside the home is quite common today, this was not the case in the 1940s. American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during World War II, as widespread male enlistment in the military left huge vacancies in the industrial labor force. Between 1940 and 1945, this demand resulted in the increase of women’s percentage in the American workforce from 27 to 37 percent. Half of the 6 million women who entered the workforce during the war were employed by the defense industries, with the aviation segment experiencing the greatest increase.
While women made their own choice to serve their country, their response to do so was in great part a result of a government recruitment campaign to inform them of America’s need for their service and to encourage their participation. The hallmark and face of that campaign was “Rosie the Riveter,” who became the female icon of WWII, the Home Front equivalent of G.I. Joe. Rosie, though a fictitious character, was based in part on a real-life munitions worker, tough but feminine, donned in a banana-clad shirt with sleeves rolled up and with determined expression and countenance. There was no more iconic a symbol for the working women on the home front of the war than that of “Rosie the Riveter.” Posters of Rosie’s image with the slogan “Do the Job He Left Behind” and others with slogans such as “Soldiers Without Guns” appealed to women and inspired them to contribute in a greater way to winning the war. Although Rosie’s image reflected the industrial work of riveters (and welders) during World War II, the majority of working women filled non-factory positions in every sector of the economy. Women learned how to do drafting and do sheet metal work to build airplanes, jeeps, and ships. They packed ammunition and tested guns, worked in steel and lumber mills, drove trucks, operated cranes and other heavy equipment, and the list goes on. Included in these was one of Rosie’s lesser-known cousins “Wendy the Welder” who was welding ships on the West Coast. By war’s end, these women produced nearly 4,600 ships in four years. The women in all these vocations would often work 6 days a week without vacations or holidays and at the end of a long, hard day go home to care for their children – and all this in the hopes that their sacrifices would shorten the war and bring loved ones home alive.
The term “Rosie the Riveter” was first used in 1942 in a song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and recorded by numerous artists. The title of the song wasn’t inspired by but is associated with then-21-year-old Rosie Bonavita Hickey (1920-1966), who was working for Convair in San Diego. She volunteered to work as an aircraft riveter when her high-school sweetheart and future husband, serving on the USS Mississippi, wrote to him about the great need for more planes. The individual who was the inspiration for the song was Rosalind P. Walter (b. 1924-2020), who worked on building the F4U Corsair fighter.
The most famous image of Rosie the Riveter was illustrated by Norman Rockwell (modeled by Mary Doyle Keefe, 1922-2015) on the cover of the May 29, 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, portraying Rosie with a flag in the background and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s racist tract “Mein Kampf” under her feet. Rosie’s prototype was actually created in 1942 by artist J. Howard Miller (modeled by Geraldine Hoff Doyle, 1924-2010) and featured on a poster an iconic image of a woman flexing her bicep and wearing a spotted red bandanna under the headline “We Can Do It!” The poster was used strictly internally in the Westinghouse factories, displayed only for two weeks during February 1943 to encourage already-hired women to work harder. It gained great popularity when feminists rediscovered it and associated it with women’s empowerment. Most people were familiar with the image, but not many people realized that the woman on it was never supposed to be Rosie the Riveter.
Rosie the Riveter became most closely associated with another real woman, Rose Will Monroe (1920-1997), who worked as a riveter at Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, building B-24 bombers for the U.S Army Air Forces. It was 80 years ago this week, November 28, 1942, that this plant turned out its first B-24 Liberator bomber. By the summer of 1944, when the plant reached its peak production, it was turning out a bomber an hour – thanks in no small part to Rosie the Riveter!
In 1944 a motion picture, Rosie the Riveter, was released. It was a wartime comedy that centered around the Rosie theme. A 1980 documentary film, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, produced by Connie Field, tells Rosie’s story as no other film has before or since. In 1996, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Without Rosie the Riveter, the map of the free world would likely look different than it does today. She truly reflected not only an important part of America’s Greatest Generation but also contributed to the eventual transformation and expansion of women’s opportunities in America’s culture and workforce. She continues to be an inspiration for future generations and is especially iconic to the women who contributed to the development of the aerospace industry and human spaceflight.
Not all of the several million Rosies left their jobs at the end of World War II. One such lady was Elinor Otto, known as “The Last Serving Rosie the Riveter.” Otto began working at the Rohr Aircraft Corporation in Chula Vista, California in 1942 and retired from Boeing Corporation in Long Beach, California in 2014 at the age of 95. At this writing, Elinor Otto is a spry 103 and still a living icon of American patriotism, longevity, and strength.
Since 2017, America has observed National Rosie the Riveter Day to honor the 16 million working women who joined the workforce during World War II and were indispensable to the victory. It is normally observed on March 21 in conjunction with Women’s History Month. Rosie’s legacy is also preserved by the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. The inscription on the plaque in front of the Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond’s Marina Bay reads: “(y)ou must tell your children, putting modesty aside, that without us, without women, there would have been no spring in 1945.” And, for that matter, perhaps no other subsequent springs as we would come to know them.
To all of the Rosies, Wendys, and other ladies who worked and sacrificed on the home front: A grateful and free America thanks you!
Cover Image: “Women shipfitters worked on board the USS NEREUS, and are shown as they neared completion of the floor in a part of the engine room. Left to right are Shipfitters Betty Pierce, Lola Thomas, Margaret Houston Thelma Mort and Katie Stanfill. US Navy Yard, Mare Island,CA.” (Wikimedia Commons)