Last week it was announced, Naomi Parker Fraley, supposedly the original Rosie The Riveter, had died. The Rosie The Riveter poster, designed for Westinghouse by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller, has become an icon. The inspiration was considered to be from a photograph of Fraley in overalls and bandana working in the factory.
That poster has now become symbolic of the spirit of women and the role women have played in difficult times. The symbolism of the poster sometimes glosses over or overlooks some of the issues women faced during World War II. Hollywood, too, helped by glamorizing the time especially if you watch movies from that era. If we look beyond the poster, it represents a significant culture shift in the U. S. What was it that working women faced during that time that created major change? We look back at these women and the impact they had on the future.
Initially, the federal government struggled with the idea of women working outside of the home. They were uncomfortable with how society would react to it. Society still dictated that a woman’s place was in the home but as the war required more and more men and workplaces, especially those the military relied on, could not make production, the federal government reconsidered its stance on a woman’s role outside the home. A major propaganda campaign targeting women was initiated. It asked women to help with the war effort. Some women were eager to work to show their patriotism. Some were divorced or single and saw it as an opportunity to live in a different location. Others needed the work to take care of their family.
Life during this time was challenging and uncertain. Americans were still suffering from the Great Depression when the U. S. entered the war. There were still concerns about people having jobs and being able to maintain homes. Worried about families keeping their homes, particularly while men were leaving for war, the federal government urged landlords and banks to be lenient on families when it came to homes. This no doubt was a concern women had since they became the only one to keep the family together. It explains why many women jumped at the opportunity to work so they could supplement the household income. The average pay for a soldier was only about $70 a month plus dependent allowances.
Women faced other problems, too. For most families, this was the first time fathers were absent. Problems with child care became a major issue. Workplaces continued to struggle as absenteeism rates climbed. In fact, the Rosie The Riveter poster was created to help with absenteeism at Westinghouse. If working women didn’t have other family members to support them with child care, it meant they had to miss work for their children. This created the first time the federal government provided child care benefits. Grants were offered to communities to help pay for child care centers so women could work. Some communities still use that funding or something similar for child care centers. The only problem with the child care was children under two were not able to attend so this created another problem for women, just as it does today, especially for those who didn’t have support from family or friends. The difference between then and today,too, is the country went from one catastrophic problem to another. In addition, women faced other issues that we don’t have to contend with today.
As single-parents, these women faced even more problems that are hidden from The Rosie The Riveter poster. The home front during the war was hard. In the ’40s, women didn’t have the conveniences that we rely on. Some didn’t drive. Some didn’t own a car. Gas rationing was also going on so if a woman did own a car, it may have been driven a lot less. Automatic washing machines were not common. Not only did women work outside the home, they had to work in the home and despite the federal government’s effort for child care, juvenile crime increased. Children were still being left alone and because fathers were away at war, some children had difficulty accepting the absence of their father. The other problem that all Americans faced was the shortage of food and other items. Even though most Americans were willing to sacrifice for the war effort, it was still hard to feed a family based on your ration coupon.
Not all women worked in factories. Women did other jobs, too. A collection of federal government personnel files held by The National Archives tells some of the stories of women working in government jobs. Some worked more traditional jobs such as nursing and office jobs. Lots of women that were nurses risked their lives and went to battlefields to care for the injured. Other women helped opened the door to jobs in technology, engineering and other industries. One woman worked on a chemical that protected soldiers from typhus and malaria. Then there were those who worked on codes.
There were over 10,000 women recruited by the military to be intelligence coders. One of these women was the first American to learn the war was over because she cracked the code that told about it. The coders were kept secret and even today, for all the work that they did, very little is known about them. Many people did not realize these heroes existed. Their work helped to give information to the military and the allies so they could win battles and shorten the war.
For most of the women who took jobs during the war, their jobs were temporary. Once the war was over many were let go so the jobs could be given to returning soldiers. Some were able to keep jobs. Those who lost their husbands and became the family breadwinner were given an extension of 18 months but imagine their worry as to what would happen once they met that extension. Another issue for all the women working during World War II was they were paid less than what men earned for the same job. Union leaders voiced their concerns about the low pay for women and they also were concerned about pay increases for those returning from war.
This does not by any means downplay the problems women face today but the women who worked during World War II helped to promote working women and that was good. But it also changed society and gave it new challenges to face. Maybe not immediately but it opened the door for America to start thinking about them. Many of the women who worked during the war gladly returned home. It would be some time before women would make such a huge impact again. But when you see that Rosie The Riveter poster, think a little more about those women and their sacrifices and the groundwork that was laid. It wasn’t just about a job.