Final Draft- Rosie the Riveter

The outbreak of World War II and the United States involvement drastically changed the lives of millions of women all over the nation. With the onset of mechanized warfare, the industrialization of mass-produced goods and the benefits of assembly line production, workers were able to produce war munitions at an exponential rate.  The social and cultural roles of American women throughout the early 1940’s shifted tremendously from the home to the workforce, and without their answer to the call to action, the war may have had a very different outcome.  Their work ethics and determination were a major factor in the United States’ winning of the war.  In turn, World War II helped to provide them with the tools they needed to survive and started them on the path to compete equally within a man’s world.  The six million American women that joined the workforce during World War II could be considered a hidden army of the Allies.

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 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.

On December 7th, 1941, the Japanese forces bombed the naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. This devastating blow to the United States sparked the immediate entry of the United States to enter into the Second Great World War. While the men were being called into action to deploy overseas to help fight the Japanese, many jobs were becoming vacant in the states and this provided the ideal opportunity for women to take advantage of these vacancies and prove what they had long been capable of. In total, 18 million women were involved in the workforce between the years of 1941 and 1945, with six million of these women coming into it for the first time.[1] The majority of these women continued to work in traditional women’s occupations; however, an estimated number of slightly over three million women worked in defense industries. Although these significant changes for women were enormous, unfortunately they did not alter the recurrent state of economic or social inequality for women. For many years, women had suffered discrimination and inequality in the workforce relative to men (including significant pay inequalities for the same work as men) and this remained unchanged throughout the duration of the war. Despite all of the inequalities that women faced during this time, they still remained true to their nation and their families, and were able to jump into the workforce and take over the jobs that men had left behind.

Various forms of propaganda were utilized during the conflict and the purpose of this propaganda was to mobilize widespread support for wartime and political actions.  Several campaigns were geared directly towards women to entice them to help the wartime effort in any way that they could.[2] The Office of War Information (OWI) was the main governmental office that was in charge over the propaganda campaigns.[3] Among the responsibilities of the OWI was the selling of the idea that women were not only able but obligated as well to become involved in wartime work. During the first few months of the Allies entering into the war, they took a severe beating from the Japanese, causing more and more men to leave the home front and join the Armed Forces. With so many men leaving, more and more jobs were opening every day for women, and the Allied war effort depended on women to fill in the jobs where the men had left. Ever since the Great Depression, many women jumped at the opportunity to obtain a war job.[4] For the first time, women were able to compete in the workforce for better pay, a common privilege that men had always been privy to. In early 1942, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted a shortage of about six million workers by late 1943, which caused President Roosevelt to create the War Manpower Commission (WMC), which was to “ensure maximum utilization of the nation’s manpower in the prosecution of the war.”[5] After its creation in 1943, the WMC and the OWI produced various campaigns that were aimed specifically at women. Common recurring themes used amongst these campaigns were the aspects of patriotism and glamour, concepts that appealed to the younger generation of women in the United States. In 1943, an issue of The Saturday Evening Post featured the first image of what has come to be known as “Rosie the Riveter”: a muscular but pert, rosy cheeked young woman, rivet gun slung across her lap. “The double message was clear: her loafer-clad foot was firmly planted on Mein Kampf  – symbolizing her role in stamping out fascism – but she could still remain feminine, as the powder puff and mirror peeking out her coverall pocket reminded.”[6]

Although the Rosie the Riveter campaign is notably recognized as the leading factor in persuading women to join the war effort, there are a few scholars and women’s historians who would disagree. Not only do they believe that the campaign did not have that significant an effect on women, but they also disagree that so many women were compelled to join the workforce. According to Karen Anderson, “the tendency of historians to focus on Rosie the Riveter has distorted the analysis of the nature of wartime changes. Because most American women remained homemakers during the war, Rosie was not the typical wartime woman.”[7] Although these assumptions are interesting, it is more widely accepted and understood that more women than men made up the workforce during World War II, and the majority of these women actually enjoyed what they did, or at least enjoyed the wages that they were earning. Along with patriotic motives, many women took war jobs to help bring their men home more quickly and to help make the world a more secure place for their children.[8]  Many women employed in defense plants wanted to keep their wartime jobs, including fifty percent of those who had previously been homemakers, and they resisted being channeled back into service and trade work (such as waitressing, tailoring, etc.). 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]

Contrary to popular myths and conceptions, women were not only compelled to join the workforce during World War II, but the majority of women actually wanted to keep their wartime job after the war was over. For over a century, women in the United States had been working; however, this was a time in which they could earn substantial wages for their work. As the armed forces filled its ranks with manpower, industry filled its jobs with womanpower and surprisingly enough, at the end of the war, many women surrendered their jobs with great reluctance. “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.”[10]

The outbreak of World War II and the United States involvement brought about a huge shift for women in the U.S. Although women had been fighting for equal rights socially and politically for almost one hundred years already, World War II and women migrating to the workforce sparked a change in the ways that women desired to be treated. For years, it was accepted (and in many states law) that women could not work, or at least there could only be one “breadwinner” per family and men typically filled this role.[11] At the war’s end, the majority of these women were enjoying the money they were making for their quality production and they refused to leave their jobs.  This forced many employers to institute layoffs and massive firing campaigns because men who were returning home from war needed their jobs back. It is astonishing that these women were treated in this way considering the fact that they were quick to mobilize in a time of need for their country, yet the entire time they were being used and the government was quick to get rid of them in the end. These massive layoffs and firings were government backed, and just as propaganda was utilized to bring women into the workforce, it was utilized to remove them as well.[12]

World War II was a pivotal moment in women’s participation in the paid labor force. Wartime workers demonstrated that it was possible for women to maintain their households while also assuming the role of breadwinner with outside employment.[13]  According to Karen Anderson, the experience “pointed the way to a greater degree of choice for American women.”[14] Never before had the government and industry launched nationwide propaganda campaigns to recruit women workers, and never before had so many women responded.[15] By going to work in war industries or what were officially called “essential civilian services,” millions of American women learned new skills and capabilities.[16] Rosie the Riveter was a huge icon for women of World War II because she was the memorable face that women saw in magazines, newspapers, and even commercials. Women relished the idea of being able to compete in a man’s world yet still retain her femininity underneath the coveralls and welder’s mask.[17] These women were truly amazing in the feats they accomplished; not only were they able to transition from the domestic realm of the household into the man’s sphere of the workforce, but they did so with style and class. Whatever individual motives each woman possessed, her patriotism, determination, and eagerness to help her fellow Americans showed through and helped to pave the way for future women’s rights and equal opportunities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

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.

 

Carnes, Mark C. and John A. Garraty. American Destiny: Narrative of a Nation. New York: Pearson Longman, 2006.

 

Cashmann, Sean Dennis. America, Roosevelt and World War II. New York: New York University Press, 1989.

 

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.

 

Hesse-Biber, Sharlene Nagy and Greg Lee Carter. Working Women in America: Split Dreams. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

 

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

 

Jones, John Bush. All Out for Victory: Magazine Advertising and the World War II Homefront. Lebanon: University Press of New England, 2009.

 

McEuen, Melissa A. Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Homefront 1941-1945. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2011.

 



[1]   Miriam Frank, Marilyn Ziebarth and Connie Field, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Emeryville, California: Clarity Educational Productions: 1982), 16.

 

[2]   Ibid., 89.

 

[3]   The United States Office of War Information (OWI) was established by Executive Order 9182 on June 13th, 1942 by President Roosevelt and remained in effect until September of 1945. The office’s main duties included distributing posters and broadcasting to the American public to promote patriotism and to encourage support. They were also responsible for warning the public of possible threats or spies and their main contribution was the encouragement of women to join the workforce.

[4]   Penny Coleman, Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Homefront in World War II (New York: Crown Publisher’s Inc, 1995), 44-45.

[5]   Ibid., 46-47. The War Manpower Commission (WMC) was established by Executive Order 9139 on April 18th, 1942 by President Roosevelt. The main duties of the WMC were to manage and balance the labor needs of the armed forces, agriculture, and industry.

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

[7]  Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women during World War II (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981), 10.  Mein Kampf is the famous memoir written by Adolf Hitler that translates to “My Struggle.”

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

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

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

[11]  D’Ann Campbell, Women at War with America: Patriotic Lives in a Patriotic Era (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1984), 103.

[12]  Coleman, 96-97.

[13]  Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Gregg Lee Carter, Working Women in America: Split Dreams (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43.

[14]  Anderson, 174.

[15]  Ibid., 100-101.

[16]  Ibid., 101.

[17]  John Bush Jones, All out for Victory: Magazine Advertising and the World War II Home Front (Hanover: University Press of New England, 2009), 224-225.

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