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This Day in Labor History: May 29, 1943

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On May 29, 1943, Norman Rockwell published a cover in the Saturday Evening Post of a woman working an industrial job. This cover represented the millions of women entering the workforce during World War II to build the material needed to defeat the Axis. This image was part of a larger cultural phenomena referring to these women workers as Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter may not have been a real woman, but she does open an entry way to talk about a key point in American labor history: women and work in World War II.

RosieTheRiveter

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter cover

When the United States entered World War II in late 1941, it created an instant labor shortage. With immigration not a possibility except from Mexico, it opened up unprecedented economic opportunities for both women and minorities. The number of women working increased from 12 to 20 million. Before the war, most working women labored in poorly paid service jobs, clerical work, or sales positions. When they did work in manufacturing, it was in the ever exploitative apparel industry, mostly in the South and still a bit in New England. During the war, their labor became much more valuable. The number of women in manufacturing grew by 141 percent and in industries making material for war skyrocketed by 463 percent. Women working in domestic service declined by 20 percent.

Just because women were needed of course didn’t mean that employers had any intention of paying them the same as men, a policy which unfortunately was acceptable to too many unions as well. Men working in a defense production factory averaged $54.65 per week with women receiving an average of only $31.50. While women did join the big industrial unions to work in these factories, because of seniority provisions, they were at the bottom, setting them up to be the first fired after the war. Some contracts for women even stipulated that women would only hold the job until the war’s conclusion. Still, the wages were vastly higher than before the war and women were able to partake of greater economic benefits than any time in U.S. history.

8d39781r

Women welders, Landers, Frary, and Clark Plant, New Britain, Connecticut

The majority of women entering the workforce were older. 60 percent of the women were over the age of 35 and most of them did not have young children. Generally, younger women with small children did not work although of course there were lots of exceptions. Few employers provided childcare and the government did not recruit these women. One exception to this was at the Kaiser shipyards on the west coast, which had 24-hour child care and therefore employed a lot more young women.

The term Rosie the Riveter first appeared in a 1942 song that became a hit for Kay Kyser. A woman named Rosalind Walter was the inspiration for the song. Walter was an elite woman who took a job in an aircraft factory before entering philanthropy after the war. The always-influential Rockwell popularized the image even more with his cover. Rockwell based his woman on a phone operator he knew in Arlington, Vermont named Mary Doyle Keefe, who he then apologized to for making her look so burly. The image then toured the country as a fundraising drive for war bonds.

The popular image of Rosie the Riveter at the time was associated with a Kentucky woman named Rose Will Monroe who moved to Michigan during World War II and worked as a riveter building bombers in a Ypislanti factory. Monroe was asked to be in a promotional film about the women workers and received some short-lived fame that way.

The most famous Rosie image, the “We Can Do It” poster in fact was not designed for the campaign at all. Westinghouse hired a Pittsburgh graphic designer named J. Howard Miller to design an image of a woman worker for its War Production Coordinating Committee. It is believed Miller based his image on a photo of a woman named Geraldine Hoff, who worked as a metal-stamping machine operator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was only shown to Westinghouse workers as part of a good morale, corporate-values drive (read, anti-union drive) for 2 weeks in February 1943 and was then forgotten. In fact, the poster did not become widely associated with Rosie the Riveter until the 1980s.

So to repeat, the image you think of when you think of Rosie the Riveter was an image intended to discourage women from joining unions. The “We” in “We Can Do It” is Westinghouse workers following the leadership of Westinghouse management. Of course, there’s certainly nothing wrong with co-opting right-wing materials for our purposes; certainly conservatives do this all time to images and ideas of the left.

We_Can_Do_It!

Westinghouse-commissioned corporate propaganda, later erroneously associated with Rosie the Riveter

The war meant a lot of hard work. But wartime work could mean a lot of fun too, perhaps too much for some. Senator Prentiss Brown (D-MI), member of the Army Ordinance Committee, spoke out about fun getting in the way of war production:

The pumps were found to be in perfect condition and no reason could found for their failure until a pair of ladies panties were taken from the suction pipe. These were undoubtedly discarded during the construction of the vessel in a moment of thoughtlessness and left lying in the tank, later finding their way into the pipeline…In order that all may cooperate one hundred percent in the war effort and the total destruction the Axis Powers, it is respectfully requested that lady workers keep their pants on during working hours for the duration.

Many women wanted to continue working after the war (one poll put the number at about 75%), but the postwar economy would be nothing if not patriarchal. Nearly all the women working in factories lost their jobs by the end of 1946. Yet despite overwhelming popular support for women staying at home at letting men working in a single-family economy during the 1950s, women soon entered the workforce at rates surpassing that of World War II. In one poll, 86% of Americans said that married women should not work if jobs were scarce and a husband could support her. Yet by 1952, 2 million more women were working than in 1945. But instead of well-paying industrial jobs, they were effectively filling service positions in the booming postwar economy, going back into sales, office work, flight attendants, and domestic service. The fight for women to become an accepted part of the industrial workforce would not be fully engaged again until the 1970s.

In 2000, President Bill Clinton created the Rosie the Riveter National Historical Park at the site of a former Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California, giving the National Park Service a site to interpret this history. I haven’t visited unfortunately.

The original Rockwell painting was sold in 2002 for $4.9 million and now resides in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Today, the image of Rosie the Riveter has become a feminist icon, despite the facts of its origins which are almost totally unknown.

This is the 108th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • When needed during the war for work, women proved they were the equal of men.

    After the war ended, they had to be put back in their “place” – the home: “Kinder, Küche, Kirche.”

    A lot of things have changed for the better in the last 60+ years – not all of the great, but, for the most part, at least for the better.

    Misogyny will probably never die, sadly.
    Witness today’s young men, and their PUA’s and MRA’s.

    • Scott P.

      Well, Germany by comparison used a much, much lower percentage of women in the workforce during the war than either the US or UK, so the comparison is less than apt.

      • DrS
      • The Dark Avenger

        According to Albert Speer:

        At the beginning of April 1942 I went to Sauckel with the proposition that we recruit our labor from the ranks of German women. He replied brusquely that the question of where to’ obtain which workers and how to distribute them was his business. Moreover, he said, as a
        Gauleiter he was Hitler’s subordinate and responsible to the Fuehrer alone. But before the discussion was over, he offered to put the question to Goering, who as Commissioner of the Four-Year Plan should have the final say. Our conference with Goering took place in Karinhall.
        Goering showed plainly that he was flattered at being consulted. He behaved with excessive amiability toward Sauckel and was markedly cooler toward me. I was scarcely allowed to advance my arguments; Sauckel and Goering continually interrupted me. Sauckellaid great weight on the danger that factory work might inflict moral harm upon German
        womanhood; not only might their “psychic and emotional life” be affected but also their ability to bear. Goering totally concurred. But to be absolutely
        sure, Sauckel went to Hitler immediately after the conference and
        had him confirm the decision.
        All my good arguments were thereby blown to the winds. Sauckel
        informed his fellow Gauleiters of his victory in a proclamation in which,
        among other things, he stated: “In order to provide the German housewife,
        above all mothers of many children . . . with tangible relief from
        her burdens, the Fuehrer has commissioned me to bring into the Reich
        from the eastern territories some four to five hundred thousand select, healthy, and strong girls.” Whereas by 1943 England had reduced the number of maidservants by two-thirds, nothing of the sort took place in Germany until the end of the war.12 Some 1.4 million women continued to be employed as household help. In addition, half a million Ukrainian girls helped solve the servant problem for party functionaries-a fact that soon caused a good deal of talk among the people.

        From pages 220-221, Inside the Third Reich.

  • Cheap Wino

    These posts don’t get the extended comment threads but I just want to say how great they are. Thanks Erik!

    Hope I’m not the only one to note the irony of:

    The original Rockwell painting was sold in 2002 for $4.9 million and now resides in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

    • witless chum

      I saw that, too. Goddamn vultures getting ahold of this is upsetting because Rockwell stands for an ideal of togetherness and care for your neighbor that’s antithetical to existence of WalMart.

      “It belongs in a museum not owned by the rats gnawing on the American people’s ankles,” I think Indiana Jones would likely say.

      • Opie Elvis

        Oh and it gets better since the trust that was used to set up the museum was nothing other than an elaborate tax dodge.
        No time at the moment but will try to find a link later.

      • delurking

        No one hates the Waltons more than I do, but Crystal Bridges is pretty nearly the only decent museum in Arkansas.

        Those of you live places with ample access to art museums may not understand what that means, but before Crystal Bridges opened if I wanted to take my kid (a budding artist) to a decent museum I had to drive to Kansas City (seven hours from here) and buy a hotel room. Who in Arkansas has the money for that?

        Crystal Bridges has free admission and is within a day’s drive for everyone in the state. Basically, if you have a car or can rent a car or can bum a ride from someone with a car, you can take your kids to a pretty good art museum now.

        I 110% agree this does not make up for the Walton’s refusal to pay their workers a living wage.

      • UserGoogol

        It’s not like people are missing out on Norman Rockwell’s work unless they see the original: he was a magazine illustrator, so his art was designed to be viewed in reproduction. The original is just a minor historical artifact, and it seems utterly petty to say museums owned by “bad people” shouldn’t be able to have it.

    • Barry Freed

      Seconding your sentiment. Really great hidden history. I love the détournement of the Westinghouse propaganda poster.

    • rea

      These posts don’t get extended comment threads, IMHO, because they inform, rather than invite debate. A blog with a mix of both types of posts is good, and this series is one of the best things on the internet

      Of course, he could try:

      One of my favorite days in labor history was today, when in 1943 Norman Rockwell published a cover in the Saturday Evening Post of a woman working an industrial job. This cover represented the millions of women entering the workforce during World War II to build the material needed to defeat the Axis. This image was part of a larger cultural phenomena referring to these women workers as Rosie the Riveter.

      So, that got me to wondering: What are your favorite underrated days in labor history/hidden gems?

      • toberdog

        this series is one of the best things on the internet

        Seconded.

        • Joseph Slater

          Thirded, or by this time forthed or fifthed.

          • DrDick

            Forthed!

        • Ahuitzotl

          I agree – probably the best thing on this site

    • JustRuss

      Damn. My mom had a distant cousin who knew Rockwell and was featured in a couple of his paintings, we visited him when I was a kid and he a had the original of one of them. Wonder what it’s worth today.

  • I always had a laugh at the similarity between our WWII posters and the ones done in the Soviet Constructionist style, in the USSR.

    Also, too – Rockefeller Center, which was finished before WWII.
    The Bircher’s still hate that building!

    • Actually a lot of posters from the 1930s and 1940s have a similar style regardless of the ideology of the state. I think that this is because in the case of the US and USSR that there is actually an underlying similarity in representing states modernizing along lines established during the industrial revolution. So industrialization, urbanization, increased production and material standard of living, etc. are all commonalities. It is just in one case being developed along capitalist lines and one along socialist lines. But, the underlying emphasis on industrial modernization is similar.

      • I understand, because Japan and China also had posters similar to those.

        Maybe instead of “Soviet Constructionism,” the style should have been called ‘Industrial Constructionism.”

      • Anonymous

        Also, obviously, the graphic conventions were influenced by the tropes of Art Deco modernism, a very international style in commercial art.

        • William Berry

          That would be me.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    I like the Rockwell version better too. for whatever faults he had as an artist and person, his work did have a sense of humor/humanity

    • Yeah, when I was younger, I thought he was way too “kitchy” with his pro-Americana.

      But then, as I got older, and looked at those works again, I couldn’t help but focus on the faces – and the ranges of humanity in them.

      Man, Rockwell could capture a face, and what that person is thinking at that second, better than anyone I can think of.

      His was a genius, not of technical craftwork, or pushing “Art” forward – his genius was capturing the details of the human face, and it’s expression.

      • Vance Maverick

        I find the faces overdone, always that little bit too explicit about what you’re to make of the personality and mood. Always slightly caricatural, and no exception here.

    • Randy

      I was surprised to learn how far left Rockwell was in his politics. The “civil rights” illustrations he did for Look magazine in the 60s were quite edgy for the time. There is also the portrait of Bertrand Russell he did for the cover of Ramparts, a commission that would not have gone to a right-winger.

    • JL

      Yeah, I had not seen the Rockwell version before, and I really like it. A muscular, grimy woman with some body fat, eating. It feels less sterile to me than the Westinghouse image.

      • witless chum

        That was my thought, too. She seems more like a real woman than like what we think of as a cover model.

      • N__B

        Rockwell always seemed to me to be aiming for hyper-real. Realer than reality. So I’m unsurprised that he painted a woman who looks like she could work all day with that rivet gun. One of this things weighs about fifteen pounds, excluding the pneumatic house, and kicks like hell – you need strong arms to move it around and hold it where needed and you need body mass to lean into it to drive the rivet head.

  • Guggenheim Swirly

    Thanks for this post, Erik. That was basically my grandmother’s story during the war – husband fighting in the Pacific, brother fighting in Europe, no kids yet, so she took a job at the (I think) GM plant, where she put Jeep parts into boxes on an assembly line. The men who still worked there used to sometimes mess with her by holding back these Jeep parts while the conveyor belt kept moving until the parts were all piled up in a heap. Then they’d release them all at once, and she’d have to scramble to get them all into their boxes without causing a bottleneck for the people further down the line. But she always did.

    I never heard those stories about her working in WWII until she was well into her 90s. Never once told those stories when I was a kid, even when I asked her brother all about his experiences in the Battle of the Bulge. I’m just glad she had the chance to tell me before she died last year.

    • Jhoosier

      I’m glad she did, too. Thanks for sharing.

  • toberdog

    it is respectfully requested that lady workers keep their pants on during working hours for the duration

    How quaint: A member of government admitted that whether lady workers have their pants on when not working in support of the war effort is none of his business.

    • Joseph Slater

      Did authorized breaks count as “during working hours”?

    • Sev

      Getting his knickers in a twist over a pair of twisted knickers. Of course, some of these women had their own manpower shortages:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_Oj52gaiBM

    • Scott P.

      But also typical that the woman is blamed for any hanky-panky going on. No requests for the male workers to keep their pants on.

      • To be fair, it wasn’t male pants gumming up a boat.

    • JustRuss

      I had no idea WW2 was pant-optional for men. No wonder it was The Good War!

      • JustRuss

        Aack…pants, not “pant”!

        • njorl

          I went clothes shopping once and the salesman kept referring to something called “a pant”. “Can I show you a grey pant in worsted wool?” I wanted to respond, “Only if you have the other one and a matching codpiece.”

      • N__B

        No pants -> much panting.

  • efgoldman

    One of the few professional jobs open (almost exclusively) to women was nursing.
    My mother graduated nursing school in ’39, and enlisted in the Army as a lieutenant.
    Except, as soon as she got engaged to my dad in early ’41, she had to resign. No married women in the Army, ya’ know. She found plenty of work during the war, of course.

    • Murc

      Were nurses regarded as professionals? They clearly are professionals, of course; becoming an RN is no joke. But even today I see a lot of people consider them menials. Sometimes people who should know better.

      • JoyfulA

        In the old days, nurses didn’t do much more than nurses aides do now. Doctors didn’t do all that much, either.

        • efgoldman

          In the old days, nurses didn’t do much more than nurses aides do now.

          It is true that they had to learn to make “bounce a quarter” beds and wash bedpans, but for most of the war my mom worked in a blood bank, doing basically the same job that nurses do now, except with re-usable needles tubing, and glass bottles.

    • g

      My great aunt was one of the first nursing graduates at Baylor. She shipped out to France in 1918 to work in a field hospital.

      Later in life, she worked as an in-store nurse at a Dallas department store.

  • There’s no doubt that WWII and the aftermath fueled the rights movements for both women and African-Americans. Consequences I do not believe Mr. Hitler intended.

    • It also fueled the movements against colonialism in Asia and Africa.

    • rea

      It went a long way toward discrediting the whole idea of racism

      • DrDick

        Definitely. The whole Eugenics Movement, which had been so strong in this country before the war, virtually disappeared (though it has left relics, like beauty pageants). Sadly it seems to be making a bit of a comeback among the rightwing whackaloons.

      • Not so much discrediting it, but rather changing its justification. Racism still exists, but it is far more likely to be justified along “cultural” rather than “biological” lines now. Kenan Malik’s The Meaning of Race: Race, History, and Culture in Western Society is good on this.

        • The Dark Avenger

          Yes, the Eugenics movement was endorsed by people on both sides of the aisle, and enshrined in American law by the SCOTUS decision that “three generations of imbeciles is enough”.

          • Randy

            So does that mean we will have one more generation of Bushes in the White House?

            • Mick Jagger

              Or two more generations of a family I will not identify by name………..

  • JoyfulA

    A little correction about the apparel industry: It was going strong in Pennsylvania until 1970 or so.

    The last shirt factory in my former neck of the woods closed about 10 years ago, when the workers went on strike against a new contract that cut the company’s health insurance contribution. They made police uniform shirts that were required to carry a union label. The company absconded in the middle of the night with all valuable equipment, including the stock of union labels, and set up shop in non-union Tennessee.

    But prior to that, my family mostly worked in garment and shoe factories, which were plentiful in all the small towns. as were small machining factories. My mother’s mother worked in shirt factories her whole life, in one small town or another, and my father’s mother worked in a blouse factory until WWII, when she got a much better job as a machinist. That’s where she met my mother, a new high school grad and fellow machinist, and that’s how my parents met, when my father, home on leave from the Navy, stopped by the factory to see his mother.

    My mother’s family moved to the “city” during WWII because of gas and tire rationing; my grandfather was a civil engineer building the turnpike for the state and was in the capital for the duration, rather than in far-flung locations. There, my mother got a job repairing airplane engines in the state farm show arena. Lots of space!

    After the war, my mother had me, and her mother-in-law got a state job handling driver’s license applications (all manual processing then!) so she’d eventually get a pension.

    Anything you want to know about garment factories and/or shoe factories in Pennsylvania in that era, just ask. I’ve got a million stories.

    • By numbers though, the South dominated the apparel industry by the 20s.

      • JoyfulA

        That’s hard to believe, because every town with a population of a couple of hundred had a dress factory or a shirt factory or a shoe factory. When the anthracite coal industry fell apart, apparel factories blossomed in Hazleton and Shenandoah, etc., and the powers that be worried about women supporting the families.

        But you no doubt have actual data, as opposed to my anecdata.

  • Ahuitzotl

    Erik, on this topic, you might find this series entertaining:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0101121/
    (if not exactly groundbreaking news for you, it was great to see union organisers so positively modeled)

    • I’ll try to check it out. Didn’t watch it when it came out, though I wasn’t the demographic at that time.

  • ralphdibny

    Well now I want to know the specifics of how that Westinghouse poster was rehabilitated as a feminist icon in the 1980s.

    • Here’s Wikipedia’s article on it.

      Sounds like it was at least partly a matter of “This looks like a feminist poster, so it must be a feminist poster.” Not particularly planned, I guess, but an accidental rehabilitation is not a bad thing…

  • witless chum

    Seeing the black women in the photo makes me wonder what race relations were like on the World War II shop floor.

    • Fraught.

    • Anonymous

      Same as they when dudes were in them.

      Oh, but with less black people.

  • DrDick

    Another industry that hired a lot of women before the war was candy making. My grandmother left school after the 8th grade in 1918 to go to work in one. All of the employees on the line were women or girls. Humorous side note here. The company let the women eat as much of the candy as they wanted as it came down the line. Grandma said that after the first week, nobody wanted any.

    • Candy making is another industry that has embraced the outsourcing model of employing low-wage young women in factories with bad safety records.

    • The Dark Avenger

      That’s the strategy that history says Howard Johnson originated(employees can eat the product at will), only instead of candy it was ice cream, and it apparently stemmed from his observation that employees would ‘help themselves’ when nobody was around, so the AYCE policy would mean a small loss of product at the beginning of employment instead of a small and constant loss whenever the employee could sneak a little bit without being caught by a witness.

      • DrS

        The United States Radium Corporation perfected this model

    • kg

      Are you sure you’re not just mis-remembering an episode of I Love Lucy? ;>)

    • efgoldman

      The company let the women eat as much of the candy as they wanted as it came down the line. Grandma said that after the first week, nobody wanted any.

      Absolutely true. Cambridge, Chelsea, and Everett were full of candy factories (paint factories, too – I wonder if there’s a connection.) My cousin worked (in the office) at the old Deran Candy plant in Lechmere Square, and she confirmed the story. I also worked for a trucking company and the drivers noted open bulk cases of candy on the loading docks.

  • A while back I saw someone passing around alternate Rosie the Riveter images that were more “femme”, because multiple feminisms, girly girls are powerful too, etc. (This was on Tumblr, of course.)

    Of course, they were based on the “We Can Do It” poster. The odd thing is that the Westinghouse Rosie is already “femme” — she’s wearing lipstick, eye makeup, and blush, and she looks realistically strong but not buff like the original Rosie. She’s wearing a wrap on her head because she has long hair.

    Most of the alternate images I saw seemed to target the parts of the image that actually symbolize power: the determined expression, the worker’s clothes, the clenched fist. And they added extravagant makeup and left off the head wrap, frequently.

    I have to admit to being baffled by the effort. I feel like it confused the mode of Rosie (being prepared for hard physical work) with an identity (being “butch”).

    • Anonymous

      Rosie’s also been made trans and a woc (several times over). Why be baffled by inclusion?

      • Determination and preparation for hard work is inherent to the image. There’s nothing about trans or WOC versions of Rosie that requires those elements be removed. If you made her cowering, barefoot and pregnant she wouldn’t be Rosie anymore, but perhaps that’s more inclusive.

        What I’m talking about primarily is the change in the expression and posture. The changes to the makeup and hair mostly seem to me to demonstrate that Rosie is already a fairly traditionally feminine figure so making her more so verges on parody. If someone just wanted to give Rosie a smoky eye and bangs I wouldn’t find that particularly remarkable.

  • howard

    erik, a small suggestion: when you indicate a wage level, you should probably in parentheses adjust for purchasing power (“inflation”).

    my favorite for this is the measuring worth site, which offers you a variety of ways to adjust based on whether (essentially) you’re interested in purchasing power as wages, project value (i.e., a $50M project) or net worth (based on gdp growth).

    so, for example, the 1941 male wage would translate to $864/week in 2013; the 1941 female wage to $498.

  • J R in WV

    The Mrs was elected secretary/treasurer of her national local, second slot to the president as there were 2 V-Ps – she got threatening phone calls from a right-wing Dept of Labor appointee soon after Raygun was elected. “We can confiscate your home if your paperwork isn’t correct!”

    Of course the forms were completed by a hired CPA specializing in union rules, but she signed them.

    She was not intimidated, she was furious. Would vote for a dead yellow dog democrat versus a Republican of any flavor. Me too.

    Good series of real history! Thanks!

  • Thanks for these posts, Erik. This one’s especially interesting, because when I took labor history not that long ago, the books we read emphasized how well employers worked with the NWLB and unions for the war effort, and suggested things didn’t fall apart in corporate-labor relations until later.

    • There was tons of tension between unions and employers throughout the war, especially over price controls and wages. The entire workforce was ready to go on strike and it was the union leaders themselves holding them back. Thus the huge explosion in strikes in 1946.

      • That was what I was thinking of. But I had gotten the idea that in return for suppressing strikes and encouraging workers to support the war effort, the unions got federal–and by extension corporate–support for the idea that everyone should be able to unionize. If this poster was intended to tell people not to join a union, it was in that case going against federal war production policy.

        I did a paper on this a very long time ago and was surprised, actually, by what cases of strikes didn’t result in NWLB censuring (almost everything that didn’t involve poaching in an already unionized shop), but it was a small data set.

        • The idea that there was a real deal here that provided support for unionization is pretty overrated. The companies never accepted unionization and always fought to undermine it. Always. Sometimes they had to accept that there was in fact a union, but this kind of low-level warfare always existed. And as we can see by looking at the last 50 years, once companies found away out of the predicament that they would have to accept the existence of a union, they did so with great aggression.

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