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Why Rosie the Riveter Still Inspires
Exploring resources that show how WWII workers began the fight for equal opportunities and equal pay
During World War II, as enormous gaps were left in the industrial workplace by men enlisted in the war effort. “Rosie the Riveter” emerged from the government campaign to recruit women for these jobs. The image of “Rosie” standing tall and proud, dressed in coveralls with her dark hair tucked in a polka dot bandana, she determinedly flexed her arm and proclaimed, “We Can Do It!” from posters and newspapers advertisements across the United States.
But who was Rosie really, and what is her legacy?
Who was Rosie the Riveter?
While the women who took jobs in factories and shipyards across the U.S. during World War II came to be known as “Rosies,” the “Rosie” of the recruitment campaign was a fictional creation, inspired by several real women. One of them was Rose Will Monroe, a native Kentuckian who moved north to work as riveter at the Willow Run bomber plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
According to her 1997 obituary in the New York Times, Monroe starred as “Rosie the Riveter” in a promotional film for war bonds after actor Walter Pidgeon discovered her at the factory. He said she looked like the “Rosie the Riveter” described in the big band song* of the same name.
Despite this brush with Hollywood and her short-lived celebrity, Monroe was described as “the quintessential wartime mother,” raising two young children on her own after her husband died in a car accident. Monroe’s daughter told the Times that during the war her mother aspired to learn to fly in order to transport aircraft parts around the nation, but as a single mother, she was passed over for the opportunity. (However, “Mrs. Monroe achieved her lifelong dream of becoming a pilot when she was in her 50s,” according to the article.)
Rosies and the Women’s Bureau
Throughout World War II, about 150,000 “Rosies” worked in commercial and Navy shipyards; more than 360,000 worked in the aircraft factories; and they made up “more than a third of all workers producing such giants of the air as Liberators, B-29s, and the swift fighters that helped to spell victory,” wrote Frieda S. Miller in a 1946 article for the New York Times.
Miller served as Director of the U.S. Department of Labor Women’s Bureau starting in 1944, and was preceded by Mary Andersen, who led recruitment and training for an unprecedented number of women for jobs that were not traditional “women’s work.” The Bureau served a critical role in studying and analyzing the needs of these “new” workers and advocating for their fair wages and safety.
As a result, the extensive documents and data captured by the Women’s Bureau** illuminate the unique challenges and frustrations experienced by women of this era, within and outside of the workplace. For example, consider a bulletin issued in 1944 under Andersen’s directorship on “Community Services for Women War Workers.” As the forward explains, 17 million were employed outside the home in 1943, in factories, farms, restaurants, offices and just about everywhere else.
“Unless these women are kept on the job, this war cannot be won,” Andersen warned, “but if they are to be kept on the job, community services must be provided to them.”
The report combines case studies, interviews, investigation, and analysis to illustrate the “typical living conditions found in war centers” and suggests potential improvements. Topics included childcare, transportation, and the need for recreation – as one woman described: “…day after day they punch the time clock, going in and coming out; they’ve nothing to look forward to.”
“Many of them carry a double load,” Andersen observed. “When they leave the plant, they must serve on the home shift. These are the women whose burdens must be eased.”
While the war years required our culture and society to adjust to the role of women in the workplace, the years following the war presented another challenging transitional period. Returning service men displaced women from the factory jobs which paid considerably more than the jobs that were conventionally available to women. This caused the public to wonder, according the Times article from Women’s Bureau Director Miller:
Where have Rosie and the rest of the heroines of the war production front gone? What are they planning to do now that the men are taking over? Is it true that these women, despite their gallant war service, are finding factory doors to heavy industry closed to them?
These concerns pushed the issues like creating more job opportunities for women and equal pay to the forefront of national discussions. In 1946 (as in our current era), advocates called for objective pay rates “based on the content of the job rather than the sex of the worker” because it would not only benefit women, “it would promote the general welfare of the community and the nation by promoting wage levels and promoting purchase power of all concerned.”
We Can Do It! Rosie’s Legacy Comes Full Circle in Ypsilanti
In 2016, a record number of “Rosies” gathered in Richmond, California. The event was attended by 2,229 women dressed in matching blue coveralls and red and white polka dot bandanas. The previous year, the record was set in Ypsilanti, MI – the same town where Rose Will Monroe was building B-24 bombers in the 1940s.
However, in October USA Today reported 3,755 “Rosies” including more than 55 originals who worked in the factories during World War II, smashed the record this fall in Ypsilanti.
Because Ypsilanti is just down the road from our ProQuest headquarters in Ann Arbor, and home of our state-of-art scanning facility, we couldn’t help to feel a little proud of this accomplishment, especially since our colleague, Product Marketing Manager Theresa Laveck participated in event. She provided the picture for this blog article, but we haven’t been able to spot her in that crowd!
Resources for additional research
* Several versions of the song “Rosie the Riveter” are available from Alexander Street’s Music: Online Listening, the most comprehensive and highest quality streaming audio collection to support the teaching and research of music. It currently provides academic libraries with streaming access to over 10 million tracks, and is growing monthly as new recordings are added.
** ProQuest History Vault digitized these primary source documents from the Women’s Bureau for simplified discovery and accessibility in its Women at Work during World War II: Rosie the Riveter and the Women’s Army Corps module.
Records of the Women’s Bureau consist of two major series. The first series documents the role of the Women’s Bureau as an investigative agency, as a clearinghouse for proposed changes in working conditions, and as a source of public information and education. The second series consists of a detailed study on the treatment of women by unions in several Midwestern industrial centers, complete with extensive background interviews and other research materials; community studies conducted nationwide on the influx of women to industrial centers during the war; and subject files and correspondence on women’s work in war industries, including issues like equal pay and child care.
Related Ebook Central titles include:
Ciment, J. (2006). Home front encyclopedia : united states, britain, and canada in world wars i and ii.
Hegarty, M. E. (2007). Victory girls, khaki-wackies, and patriotutes : the regulation of female sexuality during world war ii.
Peterson, S. J. (2014). Planning the home front : building bombers and communities at willow run.
Community Services for Women War Workers: Women’s Bureau Subject Files. Folder: 002643-002-0563
Date: Jan 01, 1940 - Dec 31, 1946; from Records of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor, 1918-1965, Part II: Women in World War II, Series B: Subjects and Correspondence Files on War Industries, ProQuest History Vault.
Dudar, H. (2017, Oct 16). “'Rosies' rivet together for a record.” Usa Today.
By FRIEDA S MILLER, Director, Women's Bureau, United States Department,of Labor. "What's Become of Rosie the Riveter?" New York Times (1923-Current file), May 05, 1946, pp. 3, ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times with Index.
Marcano, T. (1997, Jun 02). “Famed riveter in war effort, rose monroe dies at 77.” New York Times.