The Rosies

Black ‘Rosies’ of WWII opened doors for others

While it seems Americans may be fuzzy about their history, the iconic image of “Rosie the Riveter” — a tireless World War II assembly line worker — seems firmly stamped on the nation’s consciousness.

The “Rosie” term was first used in 1942 to describe the nearly 20 million women who went to work in industry and took over jobs previously done by men. Much like the earlier World War, many men had mandatory military service, which led to a shortage of available laborers, thus the demand for women workers.

Black and minority women were also part of these corps of fabled “Rosies.” An estimated 600,000 African-American women fled oppressive and often demeaning jobs as domestics and sharecroppers. They chose instead to help build airplanes, tanks and ships, fueling America’s “arsenal of democracy.”

Philadelphia historian and filmmaker Gregory S. Cooke is in the midst of telling these unheralded stories in the documentary, “Invisible Warriors: African-American Women in World War II.” He has compiled dozens of audiovisual interviews (perhaps the largest such collection in the world) about African-American participation in World War II.

“Prior to World War II, most Black women were either domestics or they were sharecroppers with farmers in the South, and sometimes they did double duty as sharecroppers and then they worked in white folks’ home as domestics,” explained Cooke. “It is also worth noting that Black women were the last ones hired. There were white males who had deferments because their jobs were considered too important to let them go into the service. And then you had the next available and large source, which was white women. And then there were Black men, and at the very bottom, when there was no one else to hire, you had Black women. So, many Black women did not actually get their jobs until 1944, the last full year of WWII.”

It was mostly due to the tireless advocacy of mid-20th century civil rights workers, especially Mary McLeod Bethune’s clout as a top-ranking African American in President Franklin Roosevelt administration. Bethune (who was also a great friend of then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt) lobbied for African-American concerns and was instrumental in seeing that African Americans received help from the federal government.

“So, between Mary McLeod Bethune, A. Philip Randolph and Eleanor Roosevelt, they created this pressure on the president to sign an act that said that any manufacturer that’s getting government contracts for the war must hire people of color and women,” said Cooke. “As a result of that pressure, the door was opened for these 600,000 women.”

Rosie The Riveter

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. 1

  • 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 2

  • 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.

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.

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.

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. 3 In many cases, women had to continue maintaining their households and caring for their children, while also taking a full-time job.

In August, 1942, African American newspapers like the New York Age, reported that Mare Island had at least 10 black women working at the navy yard. The same news report said that in May of that year, the first African American female welder had been hired to work in the war effort.

Lola Thomas, pictured, was a shipfitter at Mare Island Navy during the war years.

Gregory S. Cooke

Filmaker

Invisible Warriors: African-American Women in World War II

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter

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

SOURCE:

Philadelphia Tribune

U.S. History Scene: 

http://ushistoryscene.com/article/rosie-the-riveter/

Turner Classic Movies

COPYRIGHT 2019 NABMW