I can’t remember when I first learned about Rosie the Riveter. She’s always been there, like the national anthem and baseball. So, I was surprised, two years ago, when my 13-year-od friend, Lara, explained she thought the iconic poster from the 1940s was an old ad for power tools.It was a Saturday morning in early October, and Lara came by as I was pulling a piece of spongy wood trim off the back window of my beach shack.
“Just trying to stay ahead of decay,” I said, and asked if she wanted to help.
She picked up my cordless drill and posed with flexed bicep: “We can do it,’ she said.
“You’re a Rosie fan,” I said.
“Rosie the Riveter. You know. We can do it.” Lara shrugged.
“I saw her on your dishtowels,” she said.
My dishtowels! She liked the graphics: the tough, albeit unpierced chick. Strong and confident, Lara can relate. She sees no limit to what she can accomplish.
The women who built the steady stream of replacement warships and aircraft deployed in World War II are elderly now. The youngest of them is more than 80 years old. While we are often reminded we are losing our veterans at a rapid rate, less is said of the mothers, sisters and lovers who equipped the troops and made essential contributions on the home front. They are the great and great-great grandmothers of the young women I see on the bus, texting friends. I’ve often wondered it today’s daughters know the stories.
According to Lara, “Not really.”
Seventy years have passed since Pearl Harbor was attacked.American women were Roosevelt’s secret army, and Hitler gravely underestimated them. Like their soldier brothers, they too left ordinary lives to do extrordinary things. They worked in difficult and dangerous conditions, often at the limit of their physical ability. They accomplished tasks they had never imagined having the training or strength to do. They were the home half of the gratest generation. They helped save the world.
Many of these women suddenly found themselves single, working parents, at a time when stay-at-home moms were the norm. For some, the change was permanent - a result of the war’s terrible toll. The industrialist, Henry Kaiser, brooke new ground supporting working mothers, providing day care, health care, even a war rations office on site to help employees manage the demands of job and family. It was a time of significant and lasting social change. The healthcare Kaiser first offered his workers in 1945, “for 40 cents a week,” survives today as Kaiser Permanente, with 8.6 million health plan members.
Minority women often traveled far for an opportunity to earn more than the daily rage of the domestic. They joined an integrated workforce, bound together by common cause. They excelled.
When the soldiers came home, women surrendered their places in industry, not all were happy to return to traditional roles or to a more segregated society. I’ve been writing stories about three of these women for a couple of years now, following them and their arrival in the shipyards, through industrial accidents, through bereavement of soldier relatives; I’m inspired by them. I find their influence and worldview reflected in their daughters’ commitment to gender and racial equality, and in the activism of youth in the 1960s and 1970s. The Rosies taught their kids they too could change the world.
On October 25, 2000 President Clinton signed a bill establishing the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park at the site of the former Kaiser shipyards and near other wartime industrial sites in Richmond, California. Realization of the 15-year implementation plan for the park will require public and private investment.
The Rosie the Riveter Trust assists the Park Service with fundraising and manages an online store with things that include a Rosie action figure, complete with spring-loaded rivet gun and lunchbox. Every boy or girl with a G.I. Joe or Barbie may want to add Rosie to the collection, and support a great cause.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the Rosies, especially those of us who found more open doors in life than our mothers did. Rosie was with me when I worked my way through college. She was with me when I learned to adjust the valves in my Volkswagen engine, climbed Mt. Kenya and built the beach shack I now call home.
Last week, Lara, now nearly 15, told me about a visit she made to relatives in Canada and how she helped lay a new hardwood floor. She spoke enthusiastically about learning how to measure and cut wood, how to nail on an angle. I imagine her building her own beach shack someday. And, when we all go by to warm it, I will bring her new dish towels, silk-screened with the beloved image of Rosie the Riveter.
Therese Ambrosi Smith is the author of “Wax,” a novel about women in the 1940s, published by Blue Star Books. More information can be found online at www.womeninthe1940s.com.
For more information about the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park, go online and visit www.nps.gov/rori/.