Who Was Rosie The Riveter?


This Rosie the Riveter image is widely recognized as a symbol of female empowerment and the feminist movement. It was originally a poster made to encourage the newly working women at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company during WWII. The poster was made by J. Howard Miller and was inspired by a photograph of 17-year old Geraldine Doyle working in a Michigan factory. Ironically, Geraldine quit after two weeks, afraid that she might be injured and unable to play the cello. It was common for women to quit after just a short time of factory work.

This poster was on the walls of the factory for a mere 2 weeks and very few people in 1942 saw it. In the 1980s, feminists chose the image to promote the concept that women were capable of doing anything—it had already happened in their mother’s or grandmother’s generation. The poster had the added advantage of no copyright restrictions. It has since been reproduced endlessly on posters, coffee mugs, and t-shirts and by modern day imitators.

Beyonce as Rosie the Riveter

In 1942, the first mention of Rosie the Riveter came from a song. Listen to it on the video below. During WWII, 12% of the population was tied up in the military, mostly young men. At the same time, manufacturing was ramped up with the huge demand for war material. It was obvious to try to recruit women to the low-skilled jobs men would normally have filled. The Rosie the Riveter song was written by Red Evans and John Jacob Loeb as propaganda to draw women into the workforce.

When Norman Rockwell created the first Rosie the Riveter image for the 1943 Memorial Day cover of the Saturday Evening Post, many Americans would have made the association with the song. Rockwell’s Rosie had a more masculine body form than both his model or other war time images of the era. His model was a VT telephone operator, then 19-year old Mary Doyle Keefer. It was so popular that permission was given to the Treasury department to use it for advertising War Bonds. This was the version of Rosie the Riveter that the WWII era was familiar with.

What Was Life Like for the Real Rosies?

There was a real need to recruit women into these war manufacturing jobs, but there was also ambivalence about women in the role. Recruiters were encouraged to only hire young, single women or older women with grown children. It was felt that only a mother could properly care for her children. Ambivilence was also demonstrated in the imagery of women in these jobs, always including reminders of femininity. Even Rockwell’s more masculine image showed Rosie with make-up and a frilly handkerchief poking out of her pocket. When one young woman emerged from her physically demanding job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an older woman walking down the street had to have her say, as can be heard in this oral history :

In Looking For Rosie: Women Defense Workers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard by Arnold Spar, we learn that all “war service” appointees were hired for the duration and 6 months afterwards. This included the thousands of women, at a peak of 4,659 in 1945- almost 8% of the workforce- hired into traditionally male jobs in the manufacture, repair and refitting of ships. Prior to the war, there were only ~100 women who worked in the flag shop, making the flags and pennants flown on the ships.

These new women were given basic training as welders, electricians, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers, truck drivers, and crane operators. More advanced training was reserved for men unless the women were willing to go to classes outside of their 10 hour, 6 day work weeks. Few did. The shops with the greatest influx of women were the Shopfitters (doing preassembly of pieces for the ships) and Ordnance (assembling the gunsights). It wasn’t until June 1944 that a few women with advanced ratings in welding, electrical and sheetmetal work were allowed to work directly on the ships. Few women were promoted into management and then they were only allowed to supervise other women.

A woman operating a turret lathe (1942), Howard R. Hollem

By 1944 there was a separate clothing shop on site with the safety clothing and shoes in women’s sizes needed for their work. They were required to cover their hair with caps, wear regulation overalls and low heeled shoes. Because so many women left the job in the first 2 weeks, female counselors were hired to help the women adjust and increase retention. Over the war years, women began to prove themselves competent in the jobs and even had a better safety record with almost half the number of work related injuries per million man hours.

A “Wendy the Welder” at the Richmond Shipyards, Ann Rosener, U.S. Office of War Information

After The War

Because they all knew the jobs were temporary when hired, many women left as the war was winding down. The Yard was still producing aircraft carriers and had a particularly difficult time keeping enough staff in 1945. When the men began coming home, that all changed. Laws gave preferences to returning veterans and by 1946 even the flag shop had an all male staff. In August of 1947 the Yard was 64% veteran. None of the women hired into traditionally male roles remained.

Women were expected to do their duty and then step back into their traditional female roles. Staying in one of those jobs would have meant taking a job away from one of the servicemen who risked their lives for freedom. Some women were happy to return to their previous jobs and homemaker roles, but a poll showed the majority would have preferred to keep their jobs. It took the feminist movement and the second iconic Rosie to lead to more permanent changes in women’s employment.

Donna Barten is a novelist and scientist awaiting publication of her debut novel, Breathing Water.

Disaster at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

The USS Consitution fire, 1960, Associated Press, as displayed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum

In my novel, Breathing Water, Tony’s father works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, along with ~70,000 others during the WWII peak and ~10,000 others during peacetime.  They mostly built battleships and aircraft carriers and did repairs on any number of other types of ships.  The USS Arizona (sunk in Pearl Harbor) and the USS Missouri (where the peace treaty with Japan was signed) were both built there. 

Employment statistics from the Brooklyn Navy Yard Museum

As ships became larger, it became trickier for them to navigate the currents of the East River and under bridges. In 1960, a disaster at the Brooklyn Navy Yard tarnished its previously stellar reputation, making it easier for the Navy to close this site as they turned to private shipyards.  The Brooklyn Navy Yard was decommissioned in 1966.  It’s funny that the fire at the USS Constellation is not better known, even though it played constantly on the news, as in modern day disasters, and it had such a large impact on so many people in the 1960s.

As ships became larger, it became trickier for them to navigate the currents of the East River and under bridges.

The disaster started with something very small, and then Murphy’s Law kicked in.  An 1800 pound steel plate was resting on a pallet on the deck of the nearly completed USS Constellation.  It would be the largest conventional aircraft carrier in the fleet and, after three years, was only a few months from completion.  The ship was over 1000 feet long, or as long as 5 city blocks, and as high as a 22 story building, with room for 85 airplanes and over 4000 crew members. 

Early stages of construction in Drydock 6, The Shipworker Volume XVL#49, Dec. 6, 1957 (Left), and installation of boiler #1, The Shipworker Volume XIX#46, Dec. 9, 1960, shortly before the fire. The Shipworker collection; MC/63; Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation Archives, Brooklyn, NY.

A forklift operator moving a metal trash barrel on the deck bumped it into the metal plate.  The plate shifted and knocked the spigot off a diesel fuel tank, leaking about 500 gallons of flammable liquid onto the deck.  The fuel worked its way into lower decks where multiple crews were cutting and welding metal.  A fire was triggered, but was not able to be quickly contained because the carrier was full of wood scaffolding and other sources of flammable liquids.  When the fire grew out of control, over 3000 blue-collar workers were within the structure.  

The fire department had to deal with an immense structure full of unlit, narrow passageways and they required self-contained breathing apparatuses. Beyond the extensive fire and smoke, the metal of the ship became so hot it melted the rubber on their boots and turned the hose water to steam, forcing the firefighters back.  They had to wait to approach and repeat the wetting cycle until the metal was cool enough to proceed.  The fire was so large that firefighters were called in from all over the City, including trainees from a nearby fire training school.   

So much water was poured into the ship that it began to list to the starboard side by 4 degrees.  Once it reached 5 degrees, it wouldn’t be safe for the firefighters to continue, so the decision was made to open seacocks on the port side.  Enough water was let in to reduce it to a 2 degree list and thankfully no workers were harmed by doing so. To make matters worse, it was especially frigid for that time of year, at 11oF, and it began snowing during the operations, making it harder for everyone.

Rescue operations saved most of the men. They escaped by jumping onto barges or directly into the icy water, or by barricading themselves in airtight compartments, hoping someone would reach them in time.  Rescuers moved along the hull listening for tapping, then cut through the 2.5 inch steel to get them out.  They made creative use of ladder trucks and cranes because the ship was so tall.  Oxygen, resuscitators and inhalers were in short supply as regional hospitals didn’t have enough to for all the injured. 70 pieces of equipment, 350 firefighters and 65 hoses were used to put out the fire which took 12 hours to contain and another 5 hours to completely put out.  Radio and TV provided detailed reports to the City throughout the day and night as many families worried about their loved ones.

Multiple men described it as a living hell and by the end, 50 of the workers had lost their lives. Their names are commemorated on the plaque below. Another 330 employees and 40 firefighters were injured in the conflagration.   

Memorial outside Building 92 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

In true Murphy-style, the New York Fire Department had much more than this one disaster to deal with, as this was only the second of four very large fire/disasters they put out within a week or so.  The first happened 3 days earlier and some of the men helping at the USS Constellation fire had not quite recovered from the trials of that disaster.  On December 16, United flight 826 and TWA flight 266 collided in low visibility conditions over Brooklyn, with one crashing into the Park Slope neighborhood, just 2 miles away from the Navy Yard, and another into Staten Island.  128 passengers and 6 people on the ground were killed.  Days after the Constellation fire, a lumber yard in Williamsburg and a gas station in Coney Island caused 8 and 4 alarm fires, respectively, taxing a weary, but dedicated NYFD. Check out this real time footage of the first two catastrophes below and this NYFD document with lots of photos and details from the Constellation.

The USS Constellation was eventually repaired and completed in October of 1961, at an additional cost of $75 million.  Other fires would happen on board, but none would be as devastating as that at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  It was in service for 41 years when tens of thousands of Navy personnel walked its decks.  It was in commission during the Vietnam and Gulf wars and projected American might across the world.  President Ronald Reagan designated it “America’s Flagship” during a visit, but it was usually referred to as “Connie” by those who lived on it.  The USS Constellation was also the site of a sit-in protest by Black sailors in 1972, protesting systemic racism within the Navy.  A Disney children’s movie, Tiger Cruise, was filmed on board.  After decommissioning, it was sold for scrap and disassembled in 2015-17. 

The Brooklyn Navy Yard was once New York’s largest employer.  During peak employment in WWII the largely white male workforce became 10% female, including as pipe-fitters, electricians, welders and sheet metal workers.  Look for an upcoming article about “Rosie the Riveter” to learn more.  The Navy also started employing minorities during WWII, mostly African Americans, to make up 8% of the workforce.  After hostilities ended, the women all lost their jobs, but minority employment continued to inch up to 20% by the time the Yard closed. 

New York City was eager to use the 300+ acre site to generate other jobs and they negotiated purchase of the site from the US government.  Now the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation is a non-profit organization promoting small business development onsite, currently including 450+ businesses employing 11,000 people for a 2.5 billion dollar economic impact.  Steiner Studios is the largest and most sophisticated studio complex outside of Hollywood and a wide range of other businesses thrive there.  You can take a guided tour of the historic parts of the old Navy Yard today.  

Donna Barten is a novelist and scientist awaiting publication of her first novel, Breathing Water.

Dating in the 1950s: Romantic and Dangerous

“Date” by Kevin Dooley

Dating became more formalized in the 1950s and also less chaperoned than in earlier generations. Although dating originated at the turn of the century, it continued to evolve away from courting rituals where men interacted with potential spouses in the girl’s parents home or in very public venues. Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel.

Clear Expectations and Romance

Social expectations for young men and women, referred to as boys and girls, were clearly understood.  Boys were expected to act like gentlemen and to mind their manners.  Girls were supposed to be pretty, dote on the boy, help boost his ego, and above all:  not get pregnant!  Here’s an excerpt from The Art of Dating, ©1958:

Movie manners:  While the fellow buys the tickets, the girl steps aside and looks at the stills outside to avoid the boy any embarrassment he may feel at the ticket window.  Once inside, the girl follows the usher to their seats, and the fellow follows the girl.  If there is no usher, the boy precedes the girl down the aisle, finds two seats, and steps aside so that the girl may be seated first; he then follows and seats himself beside her.    If the girl is wearing a coat or jacket, the fellow helps her out of it and arranges it comfortably over the back of her seat.  Then he removes his outer coat and hat and scarf and either places them under his seat or holds them in his lap. 

The boy may hold the girl’s hand if she has no objection, or place his arm over the back of her seat.  Such actions do not go beyond socially acceptable behavior.  They may whisper their reactions to the picture, or comment to each other about the characters or the plot, so long as they neither embarrass each other nor annoy their neighbors.

The boy would pay for every date in anticipation of his future role as sole provider in marriage.  Early critics of the new practice of dating suggested that this was equivalent to prostitution, with a meal and entertainment being paid instead of cash. The criticism was dropped, but there was an inherent sense that a girl owed a boy “something” for what he provided. A girl’s family wanted to meet the boys she dated, but the boy’s families didn’t expect to meet his date until things were serious and likely to head to marriage.  Girls had to wait to be asked on a date, and utilized various strategies to help make that happen with a shy boy.  If a girl was considered too smart, a “brain,” she might be intimidating to boys and was expected to play dumb.   

The author’s parents going steady 1959

Rock N Roll music was growing up, bothering parents with their brash sounds and superstars such as Elvis Presley and James Brown who moved their hips in a sexually suggestive manner.  Articles warning parents about the new “teen-ager” culture were featured in popular magazines.  A boy was particularly cool if he was a good dancer and the Lindy Hop was one of the favorites of the time. 

Adam began by rapidly twirling his partner around.  This worked best if she was wearing crinolines, those scratchy, layer cake-like underslips meant to be seen, so fashionable among teenage girls at the time.  Then he forcibly swung them away from himself and across the floor.  There was a 3 or 4 beat pause so that he could snap his fingers in a cool offhand way, making sure the other dancers had cleared enough space between them.  Then the girl ran directly toward him at top speed.  At the last second before they crashed together, he grabbed her and lifted her first to his left side and then to his right, up in the air and down between his legs, and then up in the air again for the grand finale.  It required an athletic partner.” Trying to Be Cool– Growing up in the 1950s Leo Braudy 

Dangerous Dating

We think if it all as quaint now, but the 50s and early 60s was the time of highest teenage pregnancy in the US, despite all the warnings given to girls (without any formal sex education beyond books like Peyton Place).

This was also the period of earliest marriages in US history.  At age 19, 42% of girls were married, and by age 24, it was 70%.  Eventually 93% would marry and most would stay home to raise their children.  (New Passages– Mapping Your Life Across Time by Gail Sheehy)

Shotgun marriages were common to prevent shame and illegitimate birth.  In the following decade and beyond, the number of illegitimate births, especially among teen mothers, would rise significantly, presumably because of fewer unwanted marriages as the stigma of single mothers decreased.

The above statistics demonstrate the real danger of unexpected pregnancy leading to a sudden marriage in the 50s and early 60s.  At the time, the even newer practice of “going steady” was used in explanation.  So much so, that the Catholic Church, privy to the extent of hastily-arranged marriages, publically campaigned against the “pagan” practice of going steady. 

While steady dating is often construed as ‘marriage in miniature,’ the speaker [The Rev. John R. Cavanagh] said, ‘it is not preparation for marriage’ when the practice is devoted to individual pleasure.”  Parents were urged “to ‘do everything in their power’ to prevent the going steady of teen-agers and pre-teen-agers.  He declared, ‘It limits their friendships and if continued is likely to promote at best a brother-sister relationship in marriage.  In addition, it may lead to a consummated sin, even in their early teens.’”  NYTimes March 20, 1957

A 1957 Cadillac-Nice By Akote

Parking in cars was another factor leading to unexpected pregnancy. Many boys and their families had the means in the post-WWII prosperity to own cars.  After some public activity, often associated with a church or synagogue, parking required significant self-control when boys and girls had couch-sized spaces for necking and petting.  Sexual promiscuity in boys was tolerated, but was strictly taboo for “nice” girls.  This double-standard meant that preventing pregnancy was the responsibility of the girl. 

Since time immemorial the woman has been called on to be the one who maintains sexual standards in a relationship.  So the burden of the situation rests primarily on her.  If she allows premarital intercourse, it is she who is generally considered the fool.  If a pregnancy ensues, it is the girl who is ‘in trouble.

What does the guy think if his girl gets pregnant?  He may realize that he does not really love the girl.  He may wonder if perhaps she has trapped him into this predicament.  He may be haunted by the question, ‘if she went all the way with me, how can I be sure there have not been others?’  Few fellows want to get stuck with ‘a tramp.’The Art of Dating

The Happy Ending

Young ladies were expected to marry as virgins and become the helpmate to a well-providing young man and start a family.  This excerpt from The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, © 1958, says it all: 

So now she was packing, saying goodbye to her apartment and to New York and to the job that she had never really liked enough to miss now.  How strange it would be to lie in bed every morning until ten o’clock, and to be able to cut out recipes from the newspaper and make things that Ronnie liked, and to know that there was someone who would come home to her every evening, who would want to come home to her, who would direct himself to his home as a bird flies south in winter, instinctively, for warmth and love and the life he needed.  Things that had never seemed so interesting before:  tablecloths in store windows, embroidered sheets, silverware, now took on a great significance.

Modernette Kitchen by MasterCraft c.1950s-1960s

It was the next generation that would rebel against these expectations for both men and women and open up new opportunities for women beyond the home.  But this generation, sometimes called the Silent Generation, was a necessary bridge between the more conservative past and the sexual revolution and feminism of the sixties and seventies to come.