The iconic image of a woman in overalls, her hair tied up in a bandana, and flexing her bicep below the headline, “We Can Do It,” is one of the most recognizable images from World War II. It can even be considered the precursor to the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Working women have certainly reshaped American society in the past 70 years. But how did it all start?
The Ad Council called the Rosie the Riveter campaign “the most successful advertising recruitment campaign in American history…. This powerful symbol recruited two million women into the workforce to support the war economy. The underlying theme was that the social change required to bring women into the workforce was a patriotic responsibility for women and employers. Those ads made a tremendous change in the relationship between women and the workplace. Employment outside of the home became socially acceptable and even desirable.”
A New Role For Women
There is no doubt that American women played a significant role in World War II—from joining the uniformed services (WAACs, WAVEs, SPARs, and others) to handling jobs in factories and other heavy industries that previously had been a male-only province.
Prior to December 7, 1941, a number of American manufacturers were producing war matériel for the U.S. armed forces and also for America’s allies through the Lend-Lease program. After the United States entered the war, industry swung into high gear, with nearly every manufacturing company receiving government contracts to produce everything from aircraft to ammunition, rifles to rations, ships to soap, pillows to parachutes. With millions of men volunteering or being drafted into service, a huge shortage of workers quickly developed in the nation’s manufacturing facilities.
A National Park Service brochure says, “At first, companies did not think that there would be a labor shortage so they did not take the idea of hiring women seriously. Eventually, women were needed because companies were signing large, lucrative contracts with the government just as all the men were leaving for the service.”
Women, of course, had always worked— on farms, raising families, and as secretaries, teachers, and waitresses. But, with the United States just crawling out from under the Great Depression, most people were dead set against women working in factories and other manufacturing plants because they feared women would take jobs away from unemployed men.
But America’s thrust into the war meant that the old traditions had to be cast aside. While workers were suddenly in short supply, everyone assumed that women working in the war industries would only be temporary and the situation would soon return to normal once victory was attained. However, early efforts to attract women to the workforce were tepid.
The Birth of Rosie the Riveter
The government launched a propaganda campaign to sell the importance of the women performing war work. They promoted the fictional character of Rosie the Riveter, but it came about in an unusual way.
Howard Miller, a graphic designer in Pittsburgh, was hired to create a series of posters for the Westinghouse Company’s War Production Co-Ordinating Committee that would be displayed at the factory for two weeks and then replaced by another series.
Working from a photo of 17-year-old Geraldine Doyle, Miller designed a poster depicting the ideal woman worker: loyal, efficient, patriotic, and feminine. The headline said, “We Can Do It.” But this image was never considered to be Rosie the Riveter.
The first reference to this fictional character is believed to have come from a song, “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, that became popular in 1942 and furthered the efforts to attract women to industry. The lyrics went:
All the day long,
Whether rain or shine,
She’s part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
Working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter
This was followed by Norman Rockwell’s now-famous cover illustration for the Saturday Evening Post of May 29, 1943, showing a muscular woman in work clothes taking a lunch break with a rivet gun in her lap, and was the first widely publicized pictorial representation of the new Rosie the Riveter. This led to many other “Rosie” images.
The National Park Service brochure continues, “The media found Rose Hicker of Eastern Aircraft Company in Tarrytown, New York, and pictured her with her partner as they drove in a record number of rivets into the wing of a Grumman Avenger bomber on June 8, 1943…. In many other locations and situations around the country, ‘Rosies’ were found and used in the propaganda effort.”
Who Answered the Call?
According to the NPS, “Women responded to the call to work differently depending on age, race, class, marital status, and number of children. Half of the women who took war jobs were minority and lower class women who were already in the workforce. They switched from lower paying, traditionally female jobs to higher paying factory jobs. But even more women were needed, so companies recruited women just graduating from high school.
“Eventually it became evident that married women were needed even though no one wanted them to work, especially if they had young children. It was hard to recruit married women because even if they wanted to work, many of their husbands did not want them to. Initially, women with children under 14 were encouraged to stay home to care for their families. The government feared that a rise in working mothers would lead to a rise in juvenile delinquency. Eventually, the demands of the labor market were so severe that even women with children under six years old took jobs.”
Patriotism was a major influence, but it was the economic incentives that convinced many women to enter the work force. At the start of the war, 12 million women (one quarter of the workforce) were already working outside the home; by the end of the war, the number was up to 20 million (one third of the workforce).
Historians point out that conditions were sometimes harsh and pay often unequal, with women making just $31.50 a week while the average man’s pay in a wartime plant was $54.65 per week. It was still more than most women could make in traditional roles.
University of California at Santa Barbara professor Leila J. Rupp, in her study of World War II, wrote, “For the first time, the working woman dominated the public image. Women were riveting housewives in slacks, not mothers, domestic beings, or civilizers.”
Jobs Outside of Industry
While the posters and songs and magazine covers mostly portrayed women breaking the sex-stereotypical image of male industrial workers (such as welders and riveters), the majority of working women filled non-factory positions, such as in the service sector, left vacant by men called to the front.
The NPS brochure says, “Most women worked in tedious and poorly paid jobs in order to free men to take better paying jobs or to join the service. The only area that there was a true mixing of the sexes was in semi-skilled and unskilled blue-collar work in factories.
“Traditionally female clerical positions were able to maintain their numbers and recruit new women. These jobs were attractive because the hours were shorter, were white-collar, had better job security, had competitive wages, and were less physically strenuous and dirty. The demand for clerical workers was so great that it exceeded the supply.”
Married women often had to work a “double shift.” Unlike men, once their factory or shop or office job was done for the day, women often found there was still work to be done at home—cooking, housekeeping, and caring for children.
Liz Olen Minton’s Many Jobs
“Rosies” held a wide variety of jobs. Liz Olen Minton had no training, but she dehydrated potatoes and worked in an aircraft plant during World War II. In 1943, while still a teenager, Minton worked at the Simplot dehydration plant in Caldwell, Idaho. She recalls that the assembly line was a long belt with women lining both sides. A hopper contained potatoes after they had been through the peeler. Minton doesn’t remember the work being especially hard since they stood on wooden pallets or off the concrete floor.
“I was the ‘hopper girl,’” Minton relates. “When they needed more potatoes, they would start the belt and I would let the potatoes roll out.” The women used a curved blade to remove “eyes” or blemishes. After a slicer cubed the spuds, they were spread on trays, stacked six feet high, rolled into ovens, and dehydrated. The packages were then sent to the mess halls overseas.
Minton and her sister met their future husbands and married while working at Simplot; both their husbands were shipped overseas. She says her father thought that, since both sons-in-law were in the service, the family should do more defense work, so they moved to Redondo, California. There she went to work in the Douglas aircraft factory in Torrance helping to make aircraft bomb-bay doors. She ended up bucking rivets on the Douglas A-26. “My partner worked on the outside and I worked on the inside,” Minton recalls.