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Patriotic Article
American History
By Van E. Harl

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We Can Do It
(May 15, 2010)

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WWII Propaganda Poster: We Can Do It“We can do it,” was the caption on a WWII poster. Under the caption was an American woman in blue work overhauls, a red bandana in her hair and her right arm flexed upward to show her strength and determination; her determination to meet the nation's wartime production and manufacturing needs. Rosie the Riveter is what comes to mind when you see the poster.

Rose Monroe was an actual riveter in an aircraft factory when she was spotted working on a production line and asked to appear in wartime production promotions that would be seen nationwide. The caption was We Can Do It, and the truth is the US could not have done it without its female work force.

Dr. Richard Cardinali of Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. has a somewhat dry, text-bookish, but extremely interesting book out entitled “We Can Do It” that documents female wartime factory workers. The old line “what did you do in the big war grandpa” needs to be modified to “what did you do in the big war grandma”?

Women had already entered the war production work force prior to 7 December 1941 because the US was selling everything it could make to the European market, but not in the massive employment numbers that followed Pearl Harbor. Men resisted women working in the manufacturing plants prior to December of 1941. They were afraid women would take their jobs and management would give them to the women who would work for less money.

As the men were called up to serve in the military it quickly became apparent that wartime production was running out of skilled, male labor. Women had worked in defense industry during WW I but this did not lead to a permanent use of women after that war. Times were hard in the 1920s and 30s. It was considered correct to remove a woman from a job in order to give a man a paycheck to feed his family with.

Dr. Richard's parents immigrated to the US from Italy in the 1930s and both worked in textile manufacturing plants. When WWII came along their labor produced uniforms for the troops headed to war. His mother working in a plant prior to the war was unusual in 1938 but by 1942 many of the women in his Rhode Island town of Manville worked full time in manufacturing plants.

My mother's oldest sister married her home town sweetheart who was drafted into the Navy and stationed in Rhode Island during WW II. My aunt left the family farm in Iowa boarded a train for the first time in her life to be with her husband on the east coast. She found a job in a torpedo manufacturing plant and sent for the next oldest sister to come out and work. So my two aunts and another female friend from Kingston, Iowa became Rosie the Riveters. Both of my aunts had worked in a food manufacturing plant in Iowa prior to going “back east” to work, but they had never left home or the state before.

WW II created a need for mass migration of the US labor force that still has an impact on this country. Black women in the southern states who traditionally worked in agriculture or domestic labor headed north to the factories of Detroit and Chicago, never to return to the south. Better pay, better working conditions, and a chance to permanently get out of the cotton fields. This was a big adventure in war time, but it was also progress for the female worker.

The first major difference my aunts discovered was women wore pants all the time. Back home in Iowa they wore dresses to work. For safety reasons in manufacturing plants dresses had to go. Slacks and overhauls were the dress code of the day for the modern female WW II factory worker and the wearing of pants moved right into the rest of society.

Labor became so critical in 1943 and 1944 that a registration of female workers was established. Women could actually be called up and told where to work and did not have the right to refuse (in most cases single women without children.) More Americans were killed in wartime manufacturing accidents during WW II than were killed in combat. This means thousands of women died in industrial accidents, making the weapons and equipment that was needed on the front lines. Weapons that would not have been there for the combat troops if the American female workforce had not risen to meet the war time need of this nation.

Grandma really was in the fight in WW II and so were my aunts.

By Van E. Harl
Copyright 2009

About Author:
Major Van E. Harl, USAF Ret., was a career police officer in the U.S. Air Force. He was the Deputy Chief of police at two Air Force Bases and the Commander of Law Enforcement Operations at another. Major Harl is a graduate of the U.S. Army Infantry School, the Air Force Squadron Officer School and the Air Command and Staff College. After retiring from the Air Force he was a state police officer in Nevada.

 

Van E. Harl

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