The Glenn L. Martin Company began to hire women in August of 1941, first to work the nonmetallic materials used by their planes, such as canvas, felt, cloth, rubber, and asbestos, then later in various areas of aircraft production and other facets of the war effort. Other companies smartly followed suit and before long the ideology of women taking on “a man’s job” forged icons—Rosie the Riveter, Wanda the WAVE, Wendy the Welder, and others. The image embodied by these women spurred billboards, posters, propaganda films, factory tours, and a slew of other ploys all geared at selling war bonds and inspiring a female workforce to push hard and produce more.
The Los Angeles Times, December 28, 1942
Northrop Workers Show 35,000 Visitors How Planes Are Built
Rosie the Riveter and Joe the Jig-builder yesterday showed the folks how they build dive bombers at Northrop. The day-shifters, turning their day off into “family visiting day,” guided mom and dad, sister and Uncle Louie—an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 visitors—down the A-31 assembly line so they could see just where Rosie and Joe get in their licks against the Axis in the sprawling Hawthorne plant of Northrup Aircraft, Inc.
War had the world the nation knew, upside down. Women no longer just tended to the home and children. Not only had they become active members of the workforce, and the financial supporters of their families, they spent their pay how they pleased.
The Los Angeles Times, January 16, 1943
The Brave New World
Two women wearing working slacks and defense plant badges walked into a swanky furrier’s last week and each picked out a fur coat. When they had made selections each pulled a wad of bills out of the watch pocket in their slacks, paid cash in full, put on her purchase and walked away with it. Rosie the Riveter knows what she is working for and gets it. The furrier, though, is still a little dazed.
The furrier wasn’t the only one dazed by the transformation, but despite the detour from established norms, some measures still held strong to the gender stereotypes of the day. Security, at least in some areas, was beefed up to ensure these new Rosie’s weren’t harmed or harassed.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 5, 1943
Protection for Rosie
Philadelphia, May 4—Rosie the Riveter is going to be protected. Ten detective squads and a number of policewomen have been assigned to see that women war workers are not molested going to and from work. Policewomen will dress in slacks and bandanas, posing as working women. They will be decoys in the campaign against attackers and mashers.
Miraculously, in less than a year and a half, the American mold of what a woman was—and what she was capable of accomplishing—had been shattered.
Long Beach Independent, December 26, 1943
It Was a Tough Year but ‘Mom’ Did Her Job
Washington, Dec. 25—Women hitched up their girdles and went to work in 1943 and Rosie the Riveter was the woman of the year with Frank Sinatra her dream prince consort. Nylon stockings were swapped for rayon, ration coupons for shoes and dates for V-mail. A million-and-a-half women went to work and learned about coveralls, tucked the Veronica Lake-like bobs of 1942 under snoods and turbans; mastered drill presses, lashes and acetylene torches.
While this proved difficult for some to accept, the country most certainly needed a woman’s touch. As one journalist rightly put it—“Through four tough years Rosie was a heroine. She riveted the planes that dropped the bombs that won the war. She welded carrier bulkheads and wired torpedoes. She packed the food that kept General Patton rolling through Sicily and across Europe. Whatever Generals Eisenhower or MacArthur needed to battle the Axis Powers, women helped build.”
When folks think of Rosie the Riveter, the yellow, 1942 Westinghouse poster bearing the slogan “We Can Do It!” typically comes to mind. But for Americans stateside during the war effort, it wasn’t a woman in denim and a red bandana flexing a bicep that embodied the hardworking heroines flooding the plants and factories. Although period correct, the Westinghouse image didn’t gain notoriety until later and amid the feminist movement during the 1970’s and 80’s. In truth, during the war, the work of art was rarely seen outside of the Midwest-based Westinghouse factory, leaving many to wonder what circulated the legend of Rosie during the war year boom.
It is likely that another famed image is responsible for perpetuating the hype. One picture of Rosie 1940’s Americans were definitely familiar with was the Norman Rockwell painting which appeared on the cover of the 1943, Memorial Day issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Though not intended to be Rosie specifically, the two continue to be connected. The woman depicted in Rockwell's work is eating a sandwich in denim coveralls, and across her lap is strewn a very phallic and heavy duty rivet gun. Though brawnier than the Westinghouse rendition, and at least dirty from the day’s hard work, an argument has been made that neither version lived up to the reality of what was clearly an ethnically blended workforce.
As is the case of the Norman Rockwell painting, the woman depicted in the famed “We Can Do It!” poster, is also not Rosie. The image is actually of seventeen-year-old, Geraldine Hoff Doyle. On her first and only week as a metal presser at the American Broach & Machine Company, in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a plant which did not employ riveters—a United Press photographer snapped Geraldine's picture. The photo apparently sang to artist J. Howard Miller, whom Westinghouse hired to put together a line of motivational female propaganda posters.
Contrary to claims regarding who was the “real” Rosie, Rosie the Riveter was actually a composite of several women named Rose. Chance brought Rose Will Monroe to the attention of actor Walter Pidgeon during the filming of one of his propaganda pictures. Pidgeon was surprised to learn that a riveter named Rose worked right where they were filming. Quite a coincidence! When Pidgeon found Rose hard at work on the rivet assembly line in the Michigan aircraft factory, he asked her to star in a promo film to help sell war bonds.
Another Rosie who helped shape the iconic model, Rosalind P. Walter, worked the night shift as a fighter plane riveter in Long Island. It is Walter who inspired the 1942 song, “Rosie the Riveter,” which predated both the Westinghouse and Saturday Evening Post renditions. A third Rosie, an Italian-American woman, worked as a riveter at the General Motors aircraft plant in Tarrytown, New York. Rose Bonavita, the daughter of Italian immigrants, broke the plant’s record with the help of fellow worker, Jennie Florio. Likely another Italian lady. During a nightshift in June of 1943, the pair drilled nine-hundred holes and drove thirty-three hundred rivets into a torpedo bomber. For the feat, they received a letter of commendation from President Roosevelt.
During her stint in the war effort, Rose Bonavita lived with her parents, and remembers there only being time to eat, sleep, and work; the typical week included seven twelve hour shifts.
“Before the war, I thought this was strictly a man’s job,” Rose indicated, adding “I guess it was Pearl Harbor that changed us. We were all enraged.”
Ironically, if President Roosevelt’s directives against “enemy aliens” had focused as stringently on Americans of Italian and German descent, as it did on the Japanese, Rose Bonavita would have never gone to work at the General Motors plant, and Rosie the Riveter may have even been interned, as were many Italian and German citizens legally living stateside during the start of the war. While the relation to this specific Rosie is not confirmed, U.S. Department of Justice documents indicate that during the first round up of “enemy aliens,” mere hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, federal agents took a Giacomo Bonavita into custody. His only crime--he wasn’t a citizen. After being held at Ellis Island, a transfer sent Bonavita to an internment camp at Fort George Meade, in Maryland.
Although each of these women named Rose contributed to the ideology of “Rosie,” inspiring the six million women who’d entered the workplace during the country’s crucial time of need, Ms. Monroe is most commonly thought of as the “real” Rosie. This is partially the result of her film work as the character, Rosie the Riveter, even though others also played the role—Jane Frazee acted as Rosalind ‘Rosie’ Warren, a fictional character, in the 1944 picture, Rosie the Riveter. Despite this, some feel that Ms. Monroe was the “real” Rosie for another reason. Of the three mentioned Rosie’s, Ms. Monroe is the only one not to become a homemaker right after the war.
To argue against this point, Rose Monroe was a widow. The loss of her husband to a car accident in 1942 is what drew her to the workplace and kept her there; she had to support herself and two children. Monroe sought out work at the Willow Run factory specifically, because she heard they trained women how to fly. The company delivered armaments to locations across the country. Although being a single mother kept her from the program, she did begin work in their factory. This isn’t the only reason that lends to Ms. Monroe’s legitimacy as the “real” Rosie though. As a carpenter’s daughter, she not only learned trade skills young, she was also taught to ignore gender barriers. At age fifty this hadn’t changed. Not only did Ms. Monroe earn her pilot’s license, she could boast being the only woman member in the local aeronautics club. Topping that, she even taught her daughter how to fly!
In all, nearly eighteen million women entered the working world to help during the fight, many of whom did not look a thing like the Rosie's of pop culture heights. These women of many colors comprised nearly a third of the country’s workforce. Unfortunately, by the end of 1945 though, over 2.75 million of them had either been laid off or fired. Serving a dual purpose, propaganda ads also sought to bring women back to their domestic duties once the men returned.
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