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.
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
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.