S1 E1: Rosie the Riveter, The Heroine of a New Order
World War II is considered the single greatest coordinated effort in American History.
16 million Americans served in uniform and 24 million others went in search of defense jobs to support the war effort from the home front. This includes over 6 million women who went to work for the first time in defense jobs, doing the type of work that had been reserved for men before the war.
The women working in defense production captivated the public's imagination and became symbols of strength and resilience for generations to come. They were called "Rosie the Riveters" in a 1943 song, and the term stuck.
During the war, LIFE magazine paid tribute to these female workers as "neither drudge nor slave, but the heroine of a new order." American defense production helped the Allies win WWII in a big way, and our Rosies had an important part to play in that victory.
Many countries involved in the conflict had some form of defense production. But the United States had a unique ability to produce on a massive scale. US industrial production was already the largest in the world when the war began, but by the end of the war it had doubled in size.
This episode pays tribute to the women who worked in defense production and helped out-produce the enemy- which in many ways was just as important as out-fighting them.
Take a look at the images, links and more information I have compiled below to accompany Season 1, Episode 1: Rosie the Riveter, the Heroine of a New Order.
Normal Rockwell painted Rosie the Riveter for the 1943 Memorial Day edition of the Saturday Evening Post. He modeled the strong and fierce looking Rosie off Michelangelo's Isaiah. Notice how Rosie looks like a force to be reckoned with, yet she has her nails painted, has a compact and handkerchief in her pocket, and is wearing red lipstick- all symbols of femininity at the time. There are 2 other very important symbolic elements to note: she has a halo, or nimbus, over her head (this is a traditional symbol of a holy person in art). Rockwell probably used this to indicate what a savior and vital figure these women were for the war effort at the time. And secondly, she has her feet resting on Hitler's manifesto, Mein Kampf. What a powerful image to show how the people on the home-front were working in their own important way to rise above the power of the Nazi enemy.
As I mentioned in the podcast episode, Ruby Loftus was 21 at the time Laura Knight painted this portrait. Loftus was working at the Royal Ordinance Factory in Newport, Wales at the time and was praised for her technical accuracy in making the breech-ring-- which was considered the most highly skilled job in the factory.
LAURA KNIGHT, British female artist
I don't go into detail about Laura Knight on the podcast, but wanted to share more information about this incredible woman here on the blog.
Dame Laura Knight DBE RA RWS (1877-1970) was a famous British artist. In 1940 she was commissioned by the War Artists' Advisory Committee to paint various works of both men and women in different war-time roles. She was the only woman to be given War Commissions. Then after the war, Knight traveled to Germany to observe and create a painting of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial-- she was the only British artist to do so.
She was also the first female artist to be made Dame of the British Empire, and the first woman to have a retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy. She was truly a remarkable woman and fits in so nicely with this episode about women working on new frontiers.
Read more about the artist here:
Today our vision of Rosie has been influenced greatly by the now famous "We Can Do It" poster below. This poster was not actually widely known during the war and only became famous after a feminist group adopted the image as their mascot in the 1980s. The poster was originally commissioned by the Westinghouse Company and was used as a morale booster for their employees.
REAL LIFE ROSIE, Evelyn Frances Royston Banks
Evelyn worked at LeTourneau Company of Georgia, welding housing boxes to cover moving parts of machinery from 1943 (when she was only 19) until the end of the war. Her brother and some friends were overseas fighting in the war, and Evelyn was happy to do whatever she could to help the war effort.
While working at LeTourneau, Evelyn had the companionship of her childhood friend, Willie Mae Hall. They were not only co-workers, but also played together on the company basketball team and roomed together at the boarding house in Toccoa.
Willie Mae was dating a man named Dan Ayers and after the war was over, in February 1946, they introduced Evelyn to Dan's best friend, Verner Banks. It didn't take long for Verner and Evelyn to know they had found their match. The couple got married that August. Evelyn said Verner didn't really propose, "he just bought a ring and put it on my hand." Willie Mae and Dan also got married and the couples remained life-long friends.
Evelyn and Verner bought a farm and ran it together as they raised their 3 children. Evelyn returned to work in a sewing plant once the children were all going to school, while also continuing her work on the couple's farm.
In the 1960s Dan became the Sheriff of Franklin County, Ga. At the end of his term, he was killed in an accident and the County swore in Willie Mae as Sheriff, to serve out the remaining months of her husband's term.
Below, I wanted to share some images from the National Archives of women workers on the home front of World War II. The picture directly below of the Douglas Aircraft plant is one of my favorites. The original caption for this photo is "Stars over Berlin and Tokyo will soon replace these factory lights reflected in the noses of planes at Douglas Aircraft's Long Beach, Calif., plant. Women workers groom lines of transparent noses for deadly A-20 attack bombers." That line is both poetic and haunting. The sheer number of planes produced daily is mind-boggling, and pictures like this help me understand just how powerful and vast American production was.
I also love the pictures of these welders, above. They look so tough, like they are really working hard, and very happy at the same time. Their lives took such an unexpected turn when the war broke out, but what an adventure these women had during those years.
When the U.S. began ramping up their war production even before officially entering WWII, many new jobs opened up for millions of Americans desperate for work after the long, hard years of the Great Depression. 24 million people went looking for work in this booming industry. Many migrated to "war towns" like Mobile, Alabama where several war production factories were located. The combined demand for workers, and the workforce vacuum after the US joined the war, created a wonderful opportunity for minorities as well as women.
African Americans and Latinos had opportunities for well-paying factory jobs like never before. During the war, over 600,000 African American women entered the work force. I love coming across images of these women working factory jobs because I know for them this was a real victory. At a time when discrimination and segregation was rampant in the US, black females were arguably the most discriminated group of people. I am so proud of these women, fighting to get good jobs and defying the odds. Racial divides would not be mended by the war, but these women were pioneers and helped pave the way for their children and grandchildren to follow in their footsteps.
I will devote an entire upcoming episode to the treatment of minorities during the war. How ironic that we were waging a war against countries and governments because they were violating the freedoms of citizens, and slaughtering innocent people when our country was guilty of the same actions. Americans were fighting and laying down their lives to protect the freedoms of our European cousins. But on the home front, our country was guilty of racial segregation and discrimination, the internment (imprisonment) of people with Japanese ancestry (many citizens born in this country), and even prevented many African Americans, who loved and believed in our country, from being able to fight in the war. At a time when America rose to face its greatest challenge, and produced the greatest generation of people, we were also writing yet another dishonorable chapter in our history.
Stay tuned for this episode later this season. In the mean time, you can read more about African American soldiers during WWII here:
And specifically about women here:
I conducted a lot of research to prepare for this podcast and blog post- online sites, taking to people, and by reading books. There is so much more I could say, and would love to share with you if I only had the time and space. So, I encourage you to dig into this topic further with the help of good old Google, or taking a browse through the amazing compilation of interviews and information done by PBS here:
Thank you so much for joining me for this episode! If you have any questions or comments, feel free to send me a message or leave them below.
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