Final Lit Review- Rosie the Riveter Icon

Lindsey Smith

HIST 299

10-21-11

Lit Review Final

           

Women played a vital role during World War II in the combined Allied war effort against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. They quickly made transitions from their roles of homemakers and mothers to the roles of women in the workforce.  During the period between 1941 and 1945, the United States government issued various forms of propaganda to entice these women to leave their homes and enter into the workforce.  These women took on various jobs including steel work, shipbuilding and various forms of factory work. One of the most notable and successful campaigns utilized was the Rosie the Riveter campaign.  This campaign was the epitome of gender transgression and it helped to not only persuade women to leave the domestic realm and take on masculine jobs, but also to change the perspectives of women when viewing the workforce as a man’s sphere. There is an abundance of literature that exists referencing the campaign; however, there seems to be an obvious trend that none of these sources pre-date the 1980’s. This phenomenon is most likely contributed to the post-feminist movement that took place in the 1980’s and continued on through the early 1990’s, during which many women were protesting for equal rights and equal pay amongst men, the same injustices that working women of the 1940’s  were succumbed to.

            Although the image of Rosie the Riveter almost always comes to mind when imagining the women behind the scenes of World War II, according to Karen Anderson’s 1981 Wartime Women this was not the case.  “Because more American women remained homemakers during the war, Rosie was not the typical wartime woman.[1]  Anderson’s book is not the first work to address this little known fact.  Both women’s history authors D’Ann Campbell and Susan Hartmann reference in their works that the Rosie the Riveter image has “distorted the analysis of the nature of wartime changes.” [2] In further support of the misconception of all women in the United States joining the workforce, Sherna Berger Gluck stated in her 1987 book Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change that “three-fourths of the homemakers themselves thought they could best contribute to the war effort by continuing to do what they were doing.” [3] The Rosie the Riveter image is commonly seen as an empowering force on women but how powerful was this image when it was first introduced? According to both the 2001 American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States and Penny Coleman’s Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Homefront in World War II, the original Rosie the Riveter image was a creation of Norman Rockwell and not the traditional image of the beautiful woman advertising the slogan “We Can Do It!” In an effort to launch the propaganda campaign, the United States government released the latter image a few months after Rockwell’s Rosie image graced the cover of the May 29, 1943 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.[4]

            In the 1982 book The Homefront and Beyond: American Women in the 1940’s, Susan Hartmann examined the new roles these wartime women were establishing and she mentions three conditions that helped to bring about these changes.  First, women were replacing men only for the duration of the war.  Second, “women would retain their femininity while performing masculine duties” and finally, the media emphasized the feminine motivations behind women joining in the war effort, contradictory to the traditional patriotic values. “In the public image, women took war jobs to bring their men home more quickly and to help make the world a more secure place for their children.” [5] Miriam Frank, Marilyn Ziebarth and Connie Field help to fortify Hartmann’s assertions by describing a popular newsreel of the 1940’s that was used as a propaganda technique. In this newsreel, an attractive actress is shown working hard and taking a job because the nation was “in a jam.” The narrator goes on to state “Somehow that answer pleased us. No sudden emotional urge sent this young woman into war work. No loss of a loved one. No temporary economic embarrassment.” [6] This provides evidence that there were multiple reasons as to why women joined the labor movement.

When the war was over, women were expected to give up their manual labor jobs and return back home to readjust to their normal household duties.  When the men were returning home from war, they needed their jobs back.  According to Mark Jonathan Harris, Franklin D. Mitchell and Steven J. Schecter in their 1984 book The Homefront: America during World War II “a 1944 Labor Department study reported that eighty percent of the women interviewed desired to continue working and in the same kind of job after the war.” [7]  To further support their arguments, Maureen Honey (who is a prominent women’s history scholar in the field of propaganda and women during World War II) also stated in her 1984 book Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender and Propaganda during World War II that “many women employed in defense plants wanted to keep their wartime jobs, including fifty percent of those who had previously bee homemakers, and that they resisted being channeled back into service and trade work.” [8]  Because the propaganda campaigns of the war included not only the enticement for women to join in the war effort, but after the war was over, various forms of media outlets and propaganda were used to push women back into the domestic sphere of life.  “Clearly, economic imperatives and the fulfillment of doing skilled work exerted a greater influence on women who had advanced during the war than did propaganda or private fantasies.” [9]  There were many contributing factors as to why so many women were hesitant to leave their blue-collar laboring jobs after the war; however, money was the major incentive.  According to D’Ann Campbell’s 1984 Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era, the average national teacher’s salary was $1,441 in 1940, and in more rural areas, the amount would have been half of that.  Blue-collar workers had the prospective of making twice the amount of a city teacher, and four times the amount of a rural teacher.[10]  Given these extreme differences, it is easy to understand why these factory working, skilled labor women chose to remain doing manual labor jobs.  However, Campbell also introduces other overwhelming statistics.  In 1943, only one in eight women considered factory work as being acceptable, and typically, it was only acceptable for those women with no higher than an elementary education, which consisted of 37 percent of the population.[11]  According to Campbell, socio-economic factors played major roles in contributing to the ways women viewed certain jobs.  Not only were education and class important, but race as well; however, propaganda that was used catered more towards white women versus women of color or minority status.  She also stated “the heavy doses of government inspired media propaganda on the joys of manual labor obviously did not carry much credibility.” [12]

 Contrary to popular beliefs, not all women were compelled to join the workforce for the same reasons during World War II.  Although propaganda and media focused on the patriotism aspects and persuading women to help their husbands overseas, according to an abundance of research, money was a major incentive in driving women into the workforce, or at the very least it was the main factor in contributing to women staying within once the war had come to an end.  How did the Rosie the Riveter icon gain so much popularity and how was this campaign able to sway so many women (if it did indeed sway them)? Common trends amongst the writers of the various sources that have been used are their qualifications in the subject of women’s history. Karen Anderson, D’Ann Campbell, Connie Field, Sherna Gluck, Susan Hartmann and Maureen Honey are all prominent women’s historians and they have each all commented and critiqued on each other’s works, if not helped to contribute. Their combined works spread throughout a decade almost, beginning in 1981 and ending in 1987. These sources are very credible and provide extensive information on the overly general topic of women in the workforce during World War II. Each author also provides a detailed bibliography which can help the prospective researcher discover more information on the topic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2001.

 

Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations and the Status of Women during World War II. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981.

 

Campbell, D’Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

 

Colman, Penny. Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Homefront in World War II. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.

 

Field, Connie. (Producer and Director). The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. Emeryville: Clarity Educational Productions, 1982.

 

Frank, Miriam, Marilyn Ziebarth and Connie Field. The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter: The Story of Three Million Working Women during World War II. Emeryville: Clarity Educational Productions, 1982.

 

Gluck, Sherna Berger. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

 

Harris, Mark Jonathan, Franklin D. Mitchell and Steven J. Schechter. The Homefront: America during World War II. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984.

 

Hartmann, Susan M. The Homefront and Beyond: American Women in the 1940’s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

 

Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II. Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.



[1] Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations and the Status of Women during World War II (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 10-11.

[2] Ibid., 10. D’Ann Campbell is the author of Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era and Susan Hartmann is the author of The Homefront and Beyond: American Women in the 1940’s.  All three of these publications were printed within 4 years of each other, and the authors mention each other within the acknowledgements.

[3] Sherna Berger Gluck, Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987), 12-13.

[4] American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women’s History and Culture in the United States (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2001), 5 and Penny Coleman, Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Homefront in World War II (New York: Crown Publishers, 1995), 15.

[5] Susan Hartmann, The Homefront and Beyond: American Women in the 1940’s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), 23.

[6] Miriam Frank, Marilyn Ziebarth and Connie Field, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter: The Story of Three Million Women Working during World War II (Emeryville: Clarity Educational Productions, 1982), 92.

Connie Field, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Emeryville: Clarity Educational Productions, 1982) film

[7] Mark Jonathan Harris and Franklin D. Mitchell and Steven J. Schechter, The Homefront: America during World War II (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984), 118.

[8] Maureen Honey, Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender and Propaganda during World War II (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1984), 11.

[9] Ibid, 11.

[10] D’Ann Campbell, Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 104.

[11] Ibid., 113.

[12] Ibid.

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