RICHMOND, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)–The real women who, like Rosie the Riveter, rolled up their sleeves and went to work as riveters, welders, truck drivers, chemists and crane operators are finally getting some of the glory they deserve.
The first national monument dedicated to the 6 million women who worked to help the war effort, the Rosie the Riveter Memorial, has opened on the site of the old Kaiser shipyards here in this north San Francisco Bay Area city.
The memorial is a steel sculpture 441 feet long, the same length as a Liberty Ship, in the shape of the ship’s hull and smokestack. A granite walkway leading to the water’s edge is engraved with women’s stories, recalling the glory days when 747 Liberty Ships were built in record time on the site.
And membership is growing in the American Rosie the Riveter Association, formed two years ago on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, by Frances Carter, who worked as a riveter at a plant making B-29 "Superfortress" bombers.
Next month, a book of 100 Rosie stories will be published by the Rosie the Riveter Association.
"It’s almost too late," says Carter of Birmingham, Ala. "We Rosies are getting old. I myself am 78, so we are frantically trying to locate other Rosies. And sad to say, so many have died."
Remembering Patriotism, Sisterhood, Cramped Quarters, Watching Babies
They remember a deep feeling of patriotism and sisterhood as they lived cramped together in small apartments and house trailers, watching each other’s babies, rationing shoes and meat, doing without, even saving the grease from cooking and reusing it.
During the war effort, child care was government-subsidized and provided by some employers around the country. At the Kaiser shipyards, child care cost 70 cents a day.
Rosie the Riveter, the image of a muscle-bound woman with her sleeves rolled up, appeared on billboards and posters across the country emblazoned with the words "We Can Do It." She became an enduring wartime symbol of the country’s "can-do" spirit, popularized in war-bond promotions and the 1942 song, "Rosie the Riveter."
While the men went overseas to fight, "Rosies" from all backgrounds and from all over the country worked at jobs that challenged traditional notions of women’s places and abilities–in shipyards, steel mills, warehouses, offices, and hospitals–ensuring the productivity that helped to win the war.
"We were not ready for war," recalls Carter, who was 20 when she worked as a riveter in an Alabama airplane factory. "If women had not stepped in, I’m not sure we could have won it," she said in a telephone interview.
They showed what women could do, but when the war ended, the men came home. So-called protective labor laws, barring women from holding certain types of job or working certain hours, were reintroduced and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court; federal funding for child care centers ended; the government launched a massive public relations campaign encouraging women to quit their jobs and massive lay-offs gave many no choice.
The Rosies traded their hardhats for housedresses. Still, they had flexed their muscles. They knew about strength and independence and solidarity.
Tight Spaces, Aching Joints, Dangerous Work–They Took It All In Stride
"I was the smallest on my crew, so I got the tight spots," remembers Bonnie Reeves, of Portland, Ore., who worked for $53 a week at a shipyard in Vancouver, British Columbia, as a "taper," sealing fiberglass panels on aircraft carriers.
"Sometimes I worked lying on my back on a ventilation duct for eight hours, taping just a few inches above my face," Reeves recalls in a telephone interview. "One time, the pipe fitters accidentally turned on the pipes and my space filled up with hot steam and I started falling and crawling as fast as I could and I got burned."
"But I don’t think we thought of ourselves as doing anything wonderful," she says. "We were just doing our part."
Kate Grant was among the thousands of women who journeyed west from Oklahoma, Texas and elsewhere, to the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond. This migration, which included the largest voluntary westward movement by African Americans in the nation’s history, changed Richmond within a year from a small white community to a city with a diverse population of more than 100,000.
We took pots, pans, a mattress, whatever clothes we could," Grant recalls of the journey at the age of 19 with her husband Melvin and their new baby daughter, whom they carried on a pillow. When Melvin shipped out to the Pacific with the Marines, Grant worked the graveyard shift as a welder on the supply ships.
"They told me to weld like I crocheted," she said in a telephone interview. "The only problem was I didn’t know how to crochet," Grant says. "I took the iron rod in my left hand and the torch in my right and melted the lead into the narrow cracks.
"I told Melvin later that I wanted to make a ship for him to come home in."
Rosies Won the War–We Waited Too Long to Thank Them
Grant, now living with Melvin in Moore, Okla., was among more than 100 Rosies given a hero’s welcome last October when the first national monument to honor women’s labor in World War II was dedicated in Richmond.
"We could not have won the war without them," said Richmond Mayor Rosemary Corbin at the dedication. "And we’ve waited too long to thank them."
Two weeks later, Congress approved the creation of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Park on the site, which includes dry docks and piers. An old Ford assembly plant, where 60,000 tanks were built, will become the park’s visitors’ center.
"Instead of playing down what happened here, we’re starting to look at it as something remarkable," said Donna Powers, the former Richmond City Council member who led the memorial effort after being inspired by her mother-in-law’s stories.
"I soon realized there were many women across this country who deserved to have their stories told," Powers says. "These great women deserve recognition for their tremendous achievements."
One Rosie Still Brandishes Her Welder’s Union Card
Ludie Mitchell, a Richmond resident who worked as a welder, was one of the women who testified in Congress for the national park. When she held up her welder’s card, which she still carries with her everywhere she goes, she says "everyone at the hearing just melted."
"I don’t remember sleeping much, but we were young and it was crowded, but fun," said Grant. "I didn’t expect any praise for what little I did. My husband lost his brother and my sister lost her husband in the war, so when people ask me now if it was hard work, I say ‘no.’"
"There was a camaraderie because we were all working for the same thing," says Reeves, of Portland, Ore. "So many of us were in the same boat, literally, and we had a common goal to help win that war."
"I figured the harder I worked, the quicker my husband could come home," said Wilma Simpson, 78, of East Brunswick, N.J., an armed guard at a plant that made motors for armored vehicles. "It was a happy day when the war ended," she said in a telephone interview.
Simpson is president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association. Her chapter and all others welcome all women who worked during the war and their descendants for a lifetime membership fee of only $10.
"The purpose of the association," says Carter, "is to recognize and preserve the history and legacy of working women, including volunteer women, during World War II and to promote cooperation among the members and their descendants, who we call Rosebuds."
"We even have some Rosies who were children during the war, who didn’t work but went around with wagons collecting old tires for rubber and nylon hose to make into parachutes," said Carter. "Our youngest Rosie was 4 years old and she remembers collecting chewing gum wrappers."
"Many women devoted hours to scanning the skies with binoculars, looking for enemy planes," she says. "We welcome those Rosies too."
Jeannine Yeomans is an Emmy Award-winning freelance journalist and television producer in San Francisco.