Rosie the Riveter has been a symbol of women’s rights for decades. She first appeared in a popular song that was released in 1942. Sung by numerous artists, including Kay Kyser the Ol’ Professor of Swing and his big band, it became a national hit. The lyrics described a woman working in a factory to do her patriotic part during World War II.
“All the day long,
Whether rain or shine
She’s part of the assembly line.
She’s making history,
Working for victory
Rosie the Riveter”
During World War II the American government campaigned to get women to work in the defense and munitions factories with the expectation that once the men came back from the war, the women would leave the factory jobs. One government advertisement said “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.” Between 1940 and 1944 the number of working women increased from 12 million to 20 million. Although Rosie the Riveter immortalized the riveters, welders, and factory workers, the working women in reality filled jobs in every sector of the economy. Women taking these positions and doing them well proved that women could do the same jobs as men. Black women took many of these jobs and whites and blacks worked side by side during the war effort. This great equalizing moment in the history of the American workforce set the groundwork for not only the modern feminist movement but contributed to the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights organizers could point to the war effort– how people worked together in the factories to defeat the Nazis and the Nazi ideal of white supremacy.
Work in the factories was not easy. Conditions were harsh, the shifts were long, and the women did not get paid the same amount as men who worked with them. The average woman made about $31.50 per week while the average male wartime factory worker made $54.65 per week. The “We Can Do It!” posters that are typically associated with Rosie the Riveter were originally created to boost morale in the Westinghouse plants in the Midwest. The posters only appeared during World War II for a few weeks and then they disappeared. During that time, the poster was not seen as the image of Rosie. The artwork was rediscovered during the 1980’s and then associated with Rosie the Riveter and the feminist movement. The original Rosie the Riveter that inspired the song was Rosalind P. Walter who worked the night shift building the F4U Corsair fighter. Rosie the Riveter later became most closely associated with Rose Will Monroe who was a riveter at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. She worked building B-29 and B-24 bombers when the song was extremely popular. Because she so closely resembled the character of the song, she was asked to appear in posters and films to promote women to join the war effort.
While the number of women working in the American workforce did not return to the World War II levels until the 1970’s, Rosie the Riveter changed the perception of what was possible. A woman could do a man’s job. A woman could wield a rivet gun, operate a turret lathe, or weld with a welding torch. People of all colors could work side by side and were capable of doing the same work. Rosie the Riveter was a woman who changed the world.