Sixty-eight years ago today, The Saturday Evening Post published an iconic cover featuring Norman Rockwell’s now famous image of Rosie the Riveter. Rockwell built upon other notions of a fictionalized woman called “Rosie the Riveter” – a figure representing the women stepping into traditionally male factory jobs and assisting the war effort on the assembly line. Rockwell depicted Rosie as confident, strong, and of noticeably muscular physique. Contrasting with the “We Can Do It!” image featuring a more traditionally feminine model, Rockwell’s Rosie holds a heavy riveting “gun” on her lap, with oil staining her hands and forearms.
Images like Rockwell’s painting complimented a conscious propaganda campaign waged by both the federal government and defense industries that attempted to recruit women for factory labor during the war. Women rapidly signed up for work, replacing the young men who had joined the service. The propaganda campaign worked to assure women in the United States that the necessities of wartime made it not only acceptable but in fact necessary to break with traditional social norms. Women, like the Rosies, were encouraged to take traditionally male jobs, while other forms of propaganda encouraged women to assist the war effort in a myriad of other roles–as nurses, blood drive coordinators, and through efforts such as Victory Gardens and War Bond Drives. These transitions, fueled in part by imagery, left an important mark on the people who lived through the war, and scholars continue to debate the exact legacy and meaning of this history.
In 2002, Rockwell’s iconic painting depicting his version of Rosie the Riveter sold at auction for nearly five million dollars. Two years earlier, the National Park Service officially established the Rosie the Riveter / World War II Home Front National Historic Park in nearby Richmond, California. Rockwell’s original painting has been reproduced and reimagined countless times – in textbooks, on posters, and even as action figures. In this post, I take the occasion of the anniversary of the publication of Rockwell’s portrait of Rosie for the Saturday Evening Post as an opportunity to share a few reflections from women who worked in defense factories during World War II. Although many women working in defense considered themselves to be a “Rosie the Riveter,” women who are asked in oral histories to reflect on the idea of Rosie the Riveter often express complicated sentiments regarding their actual lived experiences during the war. The Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) of The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley is currently documenting this history in a growing oral history series focusing on the homefront story. As Lead Interviewer for this project, I have the opportunity to build upon the work of numerous other historians who have studied this period, while documenting new oral histories as sources for future generations of students, scholars, and the public.
Edythe “Edie” Esser
Edythe “Edie” Esser was one of the first women (if not the very first) hired to work at Yard 3 of the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California. In her oral history, she explained that the Rosie the Riveter image “makes [her] feel good.” Edie remembers the war era fondly as a time where work was both steady and filled with pride. Working in the shipyards was also a unique moment in her life where she made new friends and met co-workers from around the country. Although the war seemed to be omnipresent, the people she met at the shipyards were generally happy and united. Following the Great Depression, many were merely pleased to have steady work. Some native-born Californians were sincerely curious about the backgrounds of the waves of migrants moving to California from distant states like Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Minnesota, and Iowa. The shipyards became a place where individuals of dramatically different backgrounds could forge new kinds of relationships. At the same time, some in California came to hold deep prejudices toward new migrants, pejoratively called “Arkies” and “Okies.” Many migrants were believed to be less tolerant about race and religion and ironically, some Californians responded by socially degrading the seemingly backwards migrants. These interactions and impressions, both positive and negative, left distinct and occasionally powerful memories. In her oral history, Esser recalls as one of the most touching moments of her life the time when a young African American woman, also working at the Kaiser Shipyard, told Edie with great pride that not only was she pregnant, but she was planning to name the child Edythe after her new friend. With a mix of emotions, Esser concludes her thoughts on the shipyards, “I worked then, but then, oh, it’s sad now. We go look, and it’s nothing but an empty building, how many beautiful hours I spent there.” Although Esser, until her recent passing, maintained some mixed sentiments about her life during the war, her memory of that period in her life was largely positive. She was proud to consider herself a Rosie and admired the place of Rosie iconography in American life.
Helen August and Irene Miles
The experience of the war was anything but uniformly positive for women living in the United States. Certainly, many families were asked to make the ultimate sacrifice – losing a loved one in service to the nation. Further, the exclusion of African Americans from many unions at the outset of the war made material and social advances for some excruciatingly slow and sometimes painful. Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were relocated to internment camps during the war, the majority of whom were American citizens. Despite having received both an official apology from the federal government under the Reagan administration and reparations totaling more than $1.5 billion, the example of the Japanese experience during the war points to lingering contrasts in our memory of the conflict. For some, the war represented an extreme series of regressive realities that made Norman Rockwell’s portrait of a proud Rosie the Riveter seem like fantasy. Confronting these and many other challenges head on, many minorities in the United States began to conceive of the war as an opportunity for “Double Victory,” fighting fascism abroad and racism at home. For far less controversial reasons, many women who worked in defense factories during World War II regret that “Rosies” are largely remembered by the American public as singularly white, female and, importantly, as riveters; women also assumed jobs as welders, prefabricators, or safety officers. Class and racial divisions between different types of labor sometimes prevent women from identifying personally with the most popular images of “Rosie,” including Rockwell’s famed painting.
Helen August, who worked at a parts manufacturer in Southern California, built many of the small pieces that would ultimately be used in the region’s rapidly expanding aircraft industry during World War II. She recalls, despite having made many friends at the factory, being called a “little Jew girl” behind her back. Despite the strife of anti-Semitic insults and recollections of some neighborhoods neatly divided by race, August proudly considers herself a Rosie the Riveter and believes that most who lived through the homefront would remember the era fondly. She adds, however, “Well, I think of myself as [a] Rosie the Riveter, and I was very sorry that they never had a picture of my type, not me, but working on my machine. They only had these girls . . . bucking rivets.” Portraits of the fictionalized “Rosie the Riveter” grew to be such a powerful symbol that they came to dominate our collective memory about wartime work for women during World War II. A competing, and frequently more accurate character, “Wendy the Welder,” never came close to achieving the same level of notoriety in popular American culture. Photographs of African American, Mexican American, Asian American and Native American women and men working in factories were occasionally published and sometimes widely circulated – but they never rose to the prominence of Rockwell’s portrayal of a white, female riveter. Many women enjoyed bending traditional gender norms in even very subtle ways. Women sometimes wore their new Levi’s blue jeans or overalls about town with pride. On the other hand, although women were not typically allowed to wear makeup or jewelry on the job, places like the Kaiser Shipyards periodically suspended these rules for staff beauty contests. The traditional makeup and nail polish worn by women during these contests would playfully contrast with the heavily worn welding helmet. For many young women, transgressing with these sorts of boundaries made the war a new adventure into unknown territories.
Irene Miles, who had gradually emigrated west to California from Little Falls, Minnesota failed to identify with the Rosie the Riveter image for an entirely different set of reasons than August. Miles, who helped to operate the tool-room of the Bethlehem Shipyards (where workers would check out tools and return them at the end of their shift) wanted to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way, but had no desire to assume the role of a riveter. She was less comfortable assuming a traditionally masculine role. She describes her feelings in her oral history, “Well, this is the very thing, I wouldn’t want to go to work in the shipyards and get muscles like a man.” She continues, “I wanted to be a lady. I wanted to be a girl.” Despite the propaganda campaign encouraging women to temporarily think otherwise, certain women continued to hold on to more traditional notions of femininity – even as they found new jobs in defense industries.
Memories of conflicts over race, religion, and gender, however, are anything but universal in our oral history collections. In an oral history with Matilda Foster, an African American woman who moved to California to find work at the Kaiser Shipyard, describes the contrasts of life in the rural South during the Depression to life in the Bay Area working in Richmond. Foster recalled a different portrait of race relations than do many of our other narrators. Foster describes her crew as multi-racial, noting that the “Leaderwoman” was a white woman from Oklahoma. She adds of her crew that, “we had a Mexican girl, lived here in Richmond. There was three blacks, all three of us was from Arkansas, but wasn’t the same town. And the other ladies were white, different places, but they all was from the South I think.” She continues by painting a portrait of lunchtime interactions between women of different backgrounds, “we had fun together, we sat down and ate together at lunch time and all of that. No discrimination, nothing like that. You could tell jokes on each other, and on each race, and nobody thought nothing about it.” Men and women, especially minorities from the South, sometimes recall the Bay Area in the 1940s as a markedly friendlier socio-cultural environment, at least in terms of outright racial discrimination. The sentiment of unity experienced during wartime, too, sometimes helped smooth over existing tensions as women moved into the new environment of the shipyards.
The image of Rosie the Riveter as portrayed by Norman Rockwell sixty-eight years ago continues to play a powerful role in shaping our collective memory of the Second World War in the United States. Popular images such as Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover worked to shape the ideas that surrounded the role of women in defense industries during World War II. Both men and women who lived through this time, as they advance in age, continue to wrestle with sometimes conflicting memories about the war. With continued support from the National Park Service and City of Richmond, as well as ongoing support from generous Cal alumni and Friends of The Bancroft Library, we at ROHO strive to build the largest and most diverse body of oral histories regarding the homefront during the Second World War. As historians, we believe that these sources will help us continue to understand this and many other aspects of the history of California and the United States.
-Visit The Bancroft Library entryway to view a temporary exhibition entitled, Life on the Homefront, featuring images from the archives of the San Francisco Examiner.
-Read transcripts and watch brief video clips of original oral histories on the subject of the homefront on the web.
-Do you know a man or a woman with a WWII homefront story now residing in the Bay Area? Contact the Rosie the Riveter / WWII American Homefront Project by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Several of the interviews quoted above are currently in production; they will soon be available to other students and scholars for both research and teaching.