Monday, May 20, 2013
Blumberg: Rosie the Riveter
Rosie the Riveter
During World War II, when war production was expanding with the creation of a defense industry and men were being shipped out to war, the United States needed a replacement work force. When the number of employed women equaled the national unemployment total in 1939, Norman Cousins suggested we “simply fire the women, who shouldn’t be working anyway, and hire the men. Presto! No unemployment. No relief rolls. No depression”1. This attempt of blaming women for the loss of jobs was around the time of the Great Depression. Beginning in 1942 the U.S. government urged women to work in spite of previous efforts, to exclude them from the labor force. This transformation of the U.S. labor force was aided by the careful, but strategic creation of the most ideal worker-- patriotic, effective, beautiful, loyal, and fictional “Rosie the Riveter”. The federal government used this character’s bandanna and proud attitude as campaign propaganda to sell women the significance of the war effort, and inevitably re-shaped the role for women in the working class by granting them access to jobs that pre-existed solely for men, and enabling them to carry these tasks out with pride.
Long before World War II, women participated in the labor force. During the Great Depression era, however, women were discouraged from taking jobs in the public that unemployed men could have. Yet lower class and minority women had to work no matter what the circumstance out of economic necessity (since racial minorities tended to make less wages, etc.) It was white, middle class women who were bound by conventional gender norms and expected to stay at home and raise the family, while men dealt with supporting their families financially.
Propaganda used to lure women into the patriotism of the World War II era was pervasive in American society and did not always come in pictorial form. In 1942 a song called Rosie the Riveter, which served a similar purpose as the posters that were advertised during the time of World War II. One of the Rosie the Riveter posters that was advertised quoted, “I’ve found the job where I fit best!”2 This one specifically advertised Rosie in the garment industry, but there are others that showed her operating machinery and tools such as hammers, to perform the job of a riveter. Each propaganda poster served as a different method of persuading and also informing woman the many different ways to get involved in war production. Whether it was growing extra food on their farm, enrolling in the army, becoming a nurse, or a factory worker, most of these opportunities were presented using the same female figure of Rosie the Riveter3. This fictional character was portrayed as a beautiful white woman, wearing a bandanna with her hair pulled back, and an outfit that represents a blue-collar worker. Her figure and demeanor demonstrate the strength that was expected from any woman that decided to take on the responsibilities of these jobs. These posters did not display the actual conditions of working, but rather glorified the idea of working as a form of patriotic servitude.
Just as Uncle Sam served as nationalistic figure to instill a sense of pride for the United States, Rosie the Riveter’s purpose was almost identical. The main motivator for women joining the workforce was in fact their pride in their nation, which can almost explain why most women willfully resumed their roles as a housekeeper or to their more feminine jobs after their husbands and men returned after the end of the war. Though, when the war was still in place, women had more reason to gain pride in their country when they were being offered jobs that involved military positions. With the loss of students going into in the armed forces, women were now being easily accepted into colleges in order to obtain skills in foreign language, learning about our economy and other sciences, and even in some cases receiving military training. Women were allowed to join the Army Corps, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and began training at a center called the WAAC.4 Educated women led to specialization of labor for this new class of a workforce.
Many women who had previously been first and foremost wives and mothers were now spending their days working. According to statistics, “more than 6 million women entered the labor force during the war, bringing the number of employed women to 19 million.” 5 It was also said that the numbers of women workers went from less than a quarter of the U.S. worker population in 1940, to over a third of all workers in 1945. 6 Knowing that the majority of workers also had responsibilities and children to care for at home, one of the biggest fears of the time was an increase in juvenile delinquency. Family disintegration was another concern particularly when it came to the typical U.S. working class family. Despite the pressure that was placed on women to work, the Department’s Children Bureau clearly stated, “a mother’s primary duty is to her home and children”.7 This expectation of women to retain their responsibility of maintaining the house, and children, while also maintaining a job created an era of contradictions for working class women. The struggle of raising a family as well as performing good work must have impacted many “Rosies”’ job performance. Although there was a heavy plate of responsibilities for mothers, they were more favored due to their dedication. It was also crucial to find unmarried or childless women who did not have as many home and family obligations.
The idea that women were going to help out during wartime was considered only temporary in the eyes of men. Little did women war workers realize that once they had acquired new work skills, they would quickly be replaced by returning male veterans? From their experiences working a man’s job, Rosie the Riveters gained insight to how fulfilling it was to help the greater good. Most notably, women learned the satisfaction of performing a previously gendered and masculine job, and the kind of satisfaction that knowledge that one earned one’s own living brought. 8 In a process historians have called “reconversion” women were forced back into their household duties as soon as the war ended. The men returned and suddenly society was back the way they left it. Rosie the Riveter propaganda proved to have a negative and positive effect on women and society, and war proved to be both complex and conflicting to them. The contradiction of the expectations placed on women for their double role as a housemother and a worker, and the challenges of still being considered inferior to men demarcated this time period of changing values. It can also relate to the notion of the dialectic, and how in order to understand the nature of this time period one must examine women working and the conditions out of work that they faced.9 Women were granted jobs, but denied support for their families. They were told to work in support of their country, but then reminded that their duty is mainly to their household, as well as being refused funding to open up childcare centers. These inconsistent patterns of standards placed on women are all still evident today. If Rosie had never been introduced, however, it is certain when in history women would have been exposed to the reality that they were just as capable of a “masculine” job as any man.
1 Susan Ware, “Women and the Great Depression,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed May 1, 2013,
2 “Beyond Rosie: Women in World War II,” Museum of History & Holocaust Education, April 20, 2013, 9-14, http://www.kennesaw.edu/historymuseum/pdf/beyond_rosie_9-12_grade_TG.pdf.
3 “Beyond Rosie: Women in World War II,” Museum of History & Holocaust Education, April 20, 2013, 9- 14, http://www.kennesaw.edu/historymuseum/pdf/beyond_rosie_9-12_grade_TG.pdf.
4 Judith A. Bellafaire, “The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service,” CMH Publication 72-15, accessed May 1, 2013, http://www.history.army.mil/brochures/WAC/WAC.HTM
5 Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, and Harvard Sitkoffet, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People Volume II (1865), 626.
6 Paul S. Boyer, Clifford E. Clark, Joseph F. Kett, Neal Salisbury, and Harvard Sitkoffet, The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People Volume II (1865): 625.
7 Allan C. Carlson, “Sanctifying the Traditional Family: The New Deal and National Solidarity,” The Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society, May, 2002, http://www.profam.org/pub/fia/fia_1605.htm.
8 “The Image and Reality of Women who Worked During World War II,” Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II, April 20, 2013, http://www.nps.gov/pwro/collection/website/rosie.htm.
9 “Hegel's Dialect.” Introduction to Sociology. accessed May 1, 2013,