Rosie the Riveter is the female icon of World War II. She represents every American female manufacturing worker. She lives large in our collective subconscious, as a symbol of female strength and empowerment.
With the U.S entry into World War II, women found themselves filling jobs that had traditionally been held by men. Men were going to war, and industries were switching to war production. Industries decided that they were willing to fill the labor gap with women.
The number of women in manufacturing jobs rose dramatically over the course of the war years, with about six million women entering the workforce for the first time. Many of women were married, white, middle class, and hadn’t been encouraged to work outside the home before. There were also women of color who worked in wartime manufacturing, although they were excluded from many jobs and discriminated against. It is also worth noting that poor women had worked outside the home before the war.
Many of the American women who inspired Rosie the Riveter developed a sense of themselves as workers outside of the home, joined labor unions, and saw pay increases. Thus, the war years changed the relationship between marriage and work for middle class women. The number of women working outside the home never again returned to pre war levels.
“Rosie came in all races, not just Caucasian, That time was especially a great opportunity for them. But there was discrimination. I show that in the film. Not all black women got those jobs. Black women got paid less. This all happened. There was not total equality, that’s for sure.” -- Connie Feld, Director,“The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter.” (www.clarityfilms.org/rosie)
“You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job. This was the beginning of women’s feeling that they could do something more. The women worked in pairs. I was the riveter and this big, strong, white girl from a cotton farm in Arkansas worked as the bucker. The riveter used a gun to shoot rivets through the metal and fasten it together. The bucker used a bucking bar on the other side of the metal to smooth out the rivets. Bucking was harder than shooting rivets; it required more muscle. Riveting required more skill.” -- Sybil Lewis, an African-American riveter for Lockheed Aircraft in Los Angeles.
The historic “Rosie the Riveter” photographs in this exhibit are from the Library of Congress Archive. Alfred T. Palmer, Howard R Hollem, David Bransby, Jack Delano and other photographers like them were hired during the war years to promote and document the war effort. The color archive of “Rosie The Riveters” seem a bit more staged -- somewhere between documentary and setup. The black and white photographs from the era are far more gritty. For this show, we chose the color photographs since they are closer to the “Rosie” icon, and also feel more contemporary. While there is only one African American woman in the color photograph archive, there are others among the black and white photographs in The Library of Congress.