contributed by Melissa Lucas, senior staff writer
American women had a significant impact on WWII, both at home and on the front lines. Nearly 350,000 American women served in uniform, volunteering for the Women’s and Nurses Corps of each service branch. It is also estimated that five million women served in the defense industry and other commercial sectors during World War II, freeing up enlisted and drafted young men to head off to battle.
The defense industry’s Rosie the Riveter campaign was aimed at recruiting female workers during World War II.
While this was one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, Rosie the Riveter became so much more than just a campaign. The bicep-flexing, bandana-clad character created by famous American artist Norman Rockwell represents a movement of empowered women stepping outside of the home and contributing to the success of our nation in new ways.
Because hundreds of thousands of jobs previously held by enlisted and drafted men were now available, women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers as the U.S. joined World War II. This was surely attributed, in part, to a sense of duty. If men weren’t available to do these important jobs, someone had step up. Which is exactly what women did.
But let’s not forget that for the first time in history women were welcome in a variety of positions that had been closed to them until this point. Many women jumped at the chance to take these jobs, which they’d coveted all along.
Regardless of their personal motivations, Rosie the Riveter encouraged women to step out of their aprons and into the workforce. During wartime, the aviation industry benefited the most. By 1943, women made up 65% of the U.S. aircraft industry, when a few years before they comprised just 1%.
Women clearly proved they could do “men’s” work. And the world was never the same.
Although post-war policies returned to pre-war norms and the number of women in the workforce declined after the end of World War II, a fuse had already been lit. Families desired more and for the first time realized that their desires were truly attainable. The war taught Americans that women could successfully contribute to the workforce, and many couples opted to become two-income families as a result. By the early 1960’s more married women were in the labor force than during any previous period in American history, World War II included.
The origin of Rosie the Riveter has been the topic of debate for decades. While it isn’t certain whether inspiration for the original Rosie the Riveter comes from a specific individual, it is certain that Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter poster was inspired by a prototype created in 1942 by artist J. Howard Miller.
Miller’s version was seen on a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation under the headline, “We Can Do It!” These posters were used to encourage Westinghouse employee collaboration and team morale during the war years.
If the real Rosie the Riveter existed, it’s quite likely that she was Naomi Parker Fraley, an aircraft assembly worker at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. A photo of Fraley at work in 1942 appeared in several newspapers in and around the Pittsburgh area at the time, potentially inspiring Miller’s poster.
In 1982, Rockwell’s We Can Do It! poster was reproduced in a Washington Post Magazine article about poster collections in the National Archives. From then on, Rosie the Riveter symbolized the collective empowerment of American women. Today, she is a true emblem of the American feminist.
In the 1999 the U.S. Postal Service even issued a stamp featuring Rosie the Riveter as part of their Celebrate the Century stamp series.
The American Rosie the Riveter Association was founded December 7, 1998 to honor the working women of World War II. Members are real life Rosies and their descendants, both women and men. The non-profit recognizes and preservers the history and legacy of working women during World War II by promoting cooperation and fellowship. They further the advancement of patriotic ideals, excellence in the workplace and loyalty to the United States of America.
Today, women dubbed “Rosie the Riveter” are in their 90s or have reached 100. They may be able to receive a VA pension if they are the surviving spouse of a wartime veteran. Eileen Barkstedt got help for her mother, a real life Rosie of the WW2 era by contacting Veterans Home Care’s VetAssist Program. Her mother was able to receive in-home care such as help with laundry, light housekeeping, bathing, dressing and more with no out-of-pocket costs.
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