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.

The Cloisters Museum in Manhattan: a Peaceful Retreat in Life and Art

Reliquary busts of female saints, ~ 1525, The Met Cloisters

The Cloisters Museum, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is an unusual oasis in the very northwest corner of Manhattan (Inwood). The museum is a collection of Medieval art and architecture highlighting the Romanesque and Gothic periods from ~1050 -1500.  Since the Catholic Church was the largest and richest power of the time, it is no surprise that Christian themes dominate.  The museum began as a collection of sculpture and architecture collected by the American sculptor George Gray Bernard prior to WWI.  The architectural elements were in a various states of decay, often as pieces incorporated into European gardens, stables and farms, mostly collected from France, Spain and Germany.  Bernard could not maintain the pieces he collected, so John D. Rockefeller, Jr. purchased them for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, added more pieces to the collection, purchased the land to create Fort Tryon Park and had the museum constructed on the highest point of the park.  Rockefeller even purchased the land across the Hudson River in NJ so it would always have a beautiful view!

View from the Met Cloisters with the Hudson River and New Jersey beyond

Stained glass shows the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, ~1180, British

A 2:21 min tour of the museum here

A 27:28 min tour of the museum here

The museum contains portions of five cloisters, along with several chapels, other small monastic buildings and several galleries.  It also houses the famous unicorn tapestries, among the few remaining from the Medieval period. 

The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries)1495–1505, The Met Cloisters

When I first went to the museum, I wasn’t even sure of what a cloister was.  The word “cloister” derives from the Latin verb “to close” and describes a covered walkway around a courtyard garden area, open to allow light and fresh air as a quiet place of contemplation, reading of scripture and prayer. The cloister was also used for processions and as the main route to get from one set of buildings to another in the complex. It was often built into the corner of the cross-shaped church.

The peacefulness and spirituality of the Cloisters Museum contrasts sharply with the hustle and bustle of Manhattan.  It feels like you’ve entered another world in time and space and you can feel your breathing slow and the quiet entering.  It’s no wonder it has been used repeatedly in both film and literature, including a Clint Eastwood action film!  More recently, the museum was a central location in the novel The Cloister by James Carroll.

The Cloisters Museum seemed a natural place for Colleen, the central character in Breathing Water, to end up when she was in the uncomfortable waiting period between being married due to an unexpected pregnancy and the birth of her daughter.  Colleen was living with her new father-in-law, feeling the judgment of her family, society and her church.  In 1950s America pregnancy out of wedlock was treated as if the whole thing was the young woman’s fault, even though it most definitely takes two to make a baby.  The sin was sharp in everyone’s mind until the baby was born and the miracle of a new life helped Colleen’s transgression to fade.  While visiting the Cloisters Museum, Colleen felt a connection with the Virgin Mary she couldn’t feel elsewhere because the space felt spiritual without judgment.  Here’s the statue she saw that helped her to feel a connection with Mary… Mary who also had to live in this between time after being married and waiting for the baby.  It’s no wonder that Mary went to spend time with her cousin Elizabeth during her own pregnancy. 

Enthroned Virgin and Child, ca. 1130–1140, French, The Met Cloisters

Although it is stiff, elongated and formal in the Romanesque style, there is a surprising amount of emotion in Mary’s figure.  She is slightly stooped, with the weight of the life she sees ahead for herself and Jesus, but she is also peaceful and strong.  This Mary fully accepts their future with the full knowledge of the hardships ahead.  This is the Mary to whom Colleen can relate.  As in other Romanesque art, the baby Jesus is in the form of a miniature man, showing his fully formed divine nature coming to us through the body of the Virgin.  She is the throne he sits upon and represents the Church and its wisdom.  Jesus holds one hand to bless humankind and the other holds a book representing the Word incarnate.  Although it is unfortunate the head of Jesus has been lost in this statue, I find it makes the image of Mary more powerful because the full focus is on her.

Colleen also felt deeply moved by a late Gothic, life-sized, reclining statue of a mother and child.  In Gothic art, figures are more natural and less regal, with more human expressions.  At first Colleen assumed the statue was of Mary and the baby Jesus, but then realized the baby, so lifelike and happy, looked like a girl.  This statue was of Saint Anne on her birthing bed with her child Mary. All was well after the birth and both mother and child bear the blush of good health.  It made Colleen yearn for her future baby to be so content and helped motherhood seem more real to her.

Nativity of the Virgin,  ca. 1480,  German, The Met Cloisters

In the statue, Saint Anne’s right hand symbolically points toward the baby who will have such an important choice to make when she’s about 14 years old (Will she accept the Divine into her womb when the angel Gabriel comes to call?). Interestingly, the sculpture is made from gesso, covered with tin then painted and glazed.  The color has been preserved well, adding to the life-like nature and charm of the work. 

In Breathing Water, the Cloisters Museum became a refuge for Colleen during this waiting time.  One can wonder how many others have found peace and refuge among the stones of the original buildings and now the museum.