Rosie the Riveter Finally Gets a Museum

Roundup: Talking About History

Dru Sefton, for the Newhouse News Service (Feb. 2004):

Rosie the Riveter -- the collective nickname evokes images of American women going from kitchens to factories in a home-front effort to win World War II, then relinquishing those jobs to returning soldiers after fighting ceased.

But the reality is far more nuanced, shaped by a massive propaganda effort, entrenched gender and race issues, and the need to move into a postwar consumer economy.

"Generalizations assume that all Rosies were the same, with the same motivations," said Sherna Berger Gluck, author of"Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change."

Not so, Gluck said. Black women, for instance,"had a chance to earn very good money for the first time, and they wanted to keep those jobs."

The experiences of women who toiled stateside will be part of the new Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, under construction in Richmond, Calif. The park, which focuses on the entire home-front experience during the war, is gathering stories and artifacts for its Rosies section. Assistance in the effort is provided by sponsors including Ford Motor Co. (

The 150-acre park on San Francisco Bay north of Oakland is at the site of four Henry Kaiser Shipyards that produced 747 ships, more than any other domestic wartime complex. A Ford assembly plant was also there; workers built nearly 50,000 Jeeps and 90,000 tanks.

The home-front effort"was an enormously important part of the war story," said Judy Hart, park superintendent."It was a time of great progress in equal opportunity, mixed with wide and deep discrimination. It was working through, on a personal, one-on-one basis, layers of prejudice and preconceived ideas, that so deeply and permanently changed America forever."

The memorial will strive to capture the diversity of the Rosies."A story this rich and nuanced is best told by the individual," Hart said."Once visitors listen to a number of stories, they will understand just how varied the experience was."

The number of employed women went from 12.8 million in 1940 to 13.9 million in '42, then 15.6 million in April '43 and 17.7 million in July '43, according to 1943 War Manpower Commission figures. Later statistics showed the peak in 1944 at 18.4 million -- more than 35 percent of the work force.

And each Rosie had"very different experiences, depending on where she was in her life cycle," said Gluck, director of the Oral History Program at California State University, Long Beach. She spent four years listening to Rosies before her book, a collection of reminiscences, came out in 1987.

After the war,"Some stayed in the work force, some got married, some went back home, others went home but returned to work in the 1950s," Gluck said.

It's hard to get precise figures, Gluck said, but it's estimated that half the women working on aircraft production in Los Angeles during the Korean War were former Rosies.

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