Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Working women are on the front lines of what is being called “America’s new war.”

The terrorist Osama bin Laden has said that he wanted to make war on all American males, but it seems that women are, more than ever before, in the line of fire. No longer do they have a special status that protects them–if they ever really did.

But when the crisis is over, will these women be forgotten, just like Rosie the Riveter?

The heroism of America’s working women during the Sept. 11 tragedy is being celebrated. Flight attendant Madeline Amy Sweeney made a call from doomed American Airlines Flight 11 just after hijackers slit one passenger’s throat and ambushed the cockpit crew. Her calm voice provided valuable information to the FBI and was instrumental in identifying the hijackers. Her family also disputed media reports that her last words were screamed in terror.

“After giving as full a report as possible of her position, Amy took a deep breath and very calmly spoke the words, ‘Oh, my God’ one time, in her own amazement at the gravity of her own situation,” read a statement from her family. “She did not speak in fear.”

On another American Airlines plane that was to hit the Pentagon, TV commentator and former prosecutor Barbara Olson calmly called her husband, U.S. Solicitor-General Ted Olsen. She told him that her plane had been hijacked and that the passengers and crew, including the pilots, had been herded to the back of the plane by hijackers armed with knives and box-cutters. She spoke twice to her husband for several minutes at a time. Between phone calls, he alerted the Justice Department command center. She tried to identify buildings and give him an idea where the plane was headed.

At Ground Zero, Women of Many Trades Rebuilding New York

A flight attendant on United Air Lines Flight 93, which crashed in northern Pennsylvania, was reportedly boiling water as a weapon to throw upon the hijackers.

Today, at Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center once stood, women’s faces are frequently seen. They are firefighters, police, doctors, rescue workers, construction workers. They are also handlers of the dogs that search for hours through the rubble for bodies and the veterinarians who care for those dogs. They are politicians who view the catastrophe and plan for what actions will be taken and what rebuilding will take place. They are among the citizen-soldiers who are being called to arms.

In the past–and in regional and ethnic conflicts today–women are targeted as a way to shame men, and thus demoralize them. Widespread use of rape as a weapon of war has been reported extensively in the Balkans. But in the terrorist war against the United States, women are being blindly attacked as engines of American life and commerce. Seven employees of the TJX retail company died aboard one flight out of Boston because they were traveling on business. In the World Trade Center, we do not know exactly how many working women perished, but the number will be saddening.

In World War II, women provided the economic muscle for the nation as men went off to fight. Rosie the Riveter manufactured the planes and the guns required to fuel “The Arsenal of Democracy.”

But after the war, Rosie was treated shabbily indeed. Many women wanted to keep their jobs and their newfound independence, but they were sent packing. The heroic working woman who helped win the war in the 1940s became the strong and compelling but “unfeminine” villainess of the 1950s. Joan Crawford was a feisty working gal in the 1940s. By the early 1960s, she was the pathetic spinster-career woman in the film version of Rona Jaffe’s bestseller, “The Best of Everything.”

United States Outpaced Europe Economically Thanks to Working Mothers

Today, there is no way to disentangle women from the warp and woof of America’s economic future–even if we wanted to do so. The 30-year industrial jobs that enabled men in the 1950s to be the sole breadwinners for families have vanished; men’s wages have been stagnant or declining for two decades. Women’s brainpower and creativity is a critical factor in the new economy, and half the work force is female.

And a new economic analysis says that the reason the United States outpaced the European Union in recent years was one factor–women.

The author of that analysis, Prof. Richard B. Freeman, of the National Bureau of Economic Research at Harvard University, writes that the U.S. “jobs miracle” is not a story of male employment but of the large increase in female employment. And he notes that the employment of married women with children was the reason why the United States outstripped the European Union economically. More U.S. women with pre-school children participated in the labor force in one year, 1996, than did all European women, many of them without children. Women’s employment represented two-thirds of the 14 percent difference between American and European employment rates in that year.

In other words, without women, the American economy would have lost most of its advantage.

Harvard’s Freeman notes, “What has happened to women should not be viewed as an issue for gender studies or women’s caucuses, but rather as something with ramifications for the entire economy, from aggregate job growth to determination of living standards.”

When the Specter Subsides, Will Women Be Maligned, Sidelined?

But when the immediate specter of terror subsides, when life gets as much as possible back to normal, will working women once again be maligned? Will we see a repeat of the late 1940s, in at least one respect? Will women’s heroism be forgotten when the immediate crisis recedes, and it comes time once again to pay attention to the domestic economy?

Will workplace issues that benefit women–paid maternity leave, decent child care and different policies for getting tenure, making partner and being promoted–advance one whit? Will the model of the male breadwinner with a housewife handling all the domestic chores still be the blueprint for the way companies think of their employees?

If so, we will dishonor the memory of all those working women who died on a day that they thought would be like any other. A day during which they were helping their families thrive and the country prosper.

This time, let’s remember.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.