Rosie the Riveter is a classic symbol of feminine strength. But is feminism what she symbolized at the time of her creation?
By Ellen Sheehy
For as long as I remember, there has been a pot holder hanging above my grampa’s workbench in his garage. It’s faded, but the background is still yellow, and Rosie the Riveter–a cute, muscular young woman wearing coveralls, with her hair hidden by a red and white polka-dot bandana–still loudly proclaims, “We Can Do It!” When I asked, my grampa explained that she had been used during World War II to get women to take jobs rather than stay home. According to David M. Kennedy in his history of the era, Freedom from Fear, Rosie was meant to recruit and personify the women who worked for wages during the war, especially those who worked in war plants. Looking back on the Second World War, Rosie is to many people the beginning of the effective rise of feminism in the United States. But in reality, she wasn’t. World War II changed many things in the United States, but the nation’s view of women was not one of them.
As the U.S. recruited men to fight, there were fewer people left in the country willing or able to work in big factories. Starting in 1942, immigrants, most of them from Mexico, were called upon to fill some of the holes, but they were not enough. So the U.S. government introduced Rosie. More than six million American women responded to her call. Half of them were young women graduating from school who would have taken jobs anyway, but that still left between 2.7 and 3.5 million women entering the workplace who would have stayed at home had there been no war.
Many women did take jobs in war plants and factories, helping build ships, tanks, and airplanes. Few of them were riveters, because that job required a lot of skill and most employers considered women short-term employees. Instead, they were given low-skill jobs like welding, which didn’t take much training. Only 4.4 percent of skilled war jobs were held by women during World War II, and the majority of women in 1943 said they would not take a job at a war plant. They were more likely to choose jobs as secretaries, school teachers, nurses, and social workers, as they had for decades. In those jobs, at least, they could be respected. Most women in war plants were not, even though by 1944 the majority of working women were married mothers over 35.
There seems to be an exception at the Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where thousands of women worked a huge array of jobs, from janitors cleaning huge plants where Uranium was separated, to cubicle operators monitoring the machines, to lab workers analyzing the materials produced. Most women at the Works were not yet married, and the average age of a CEW worker was 27. In general, women seemed to be more respected, but the majority of the jobs they held weren’t men’s jobs as men’s jobs were thought of in the 1940s; they were either similar to jobs that women usually held, or jobs that had not existed for more than a few years. There were also not a lot of men around to protest.
That said, the women who worked the very skilled jobs did meet some friction. Denise Kiernan, in her book The Girls of Atomic City, recounts the story of Virginia Spivey, a chemist, who was shocked when one of her fellow lab workers “casually and assertively said he didn’t think women needed to go to college. He said this right in front of her, and in front of her colleague and friend Emily” (187). Men’s ideas about women had not changed. And after the atomic bomb was dropped, many of the women who had worked there quit their jobs, married, and had children.
More broadly, after World War II ended most women were told to relinquish their jobs to returning veterans. If they did not do it willingly, they were fired. After the war, fewer women held blue collar jobs than before: 24.9 percent in 1947 versus 26.2 percent in 1940. Naturally, some were angry at being laid off, but according to one survey, 76 percent of women in 1946 were glad to leave the workplace and start families. They wanted to be at home. “By war’s end,” David Kennedy writes, “a higher proportion of American women were married than at any time in the century, and women’s median age at marriage had dipped to a historic low. Births shot up as well” (781). The Rosies of World War II happily became the stay-at-home mothers of the baby-boom generation.
Furthermore, most American women had not followed Rosie’s lead in the first place. David Kennedy points out, “fully three-quarters of all women of working age were ‘at home’ as the war began. The overwhelming majority of them were still there when the war ended” (777). The historian D’Ann Campbell wrote, “Did deep societal values change [in World War II]? Yes. Americans emphasized more strongly the primacy of family and children in their lives than in previous eras” (qtd in Kennedy, 781). In other words, America didn’t want women to work.
Rosie the Riveter was not a good example of the average American working woman, and she did not do what she was meant to do. But she also did more than she was meant to do, because the War Manpower Commission probably did not intend for her to inspire women to always earn paychecks. She may not have inspired a large feminist movement directly after the war, but she was certainly used for it in the decades to follow.
- Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1999.
- Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City. Atria Books, 2014.