Stateside 5: Rosie the Riveter

‘You could pick a woman’s weld, because it was neat and even, whereas the men’s were a bit rough’ — American veteran of the Richmond shipyards

All hands on board

The Japanese attack on the Pacific naval base in Hawaii was catastrophic.

President Franklin Roosevelt called it a date that will live in infamy. He was referring to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Not only did the event jolt America into the war, it also started a gender revolution.

With men joining the services in their tens of thousands, gaps opened up in the labour force and women steadily moved into the jobs they had vacated.

Factories were rapidly converted to war production and in Richmond, California, ship building became a huge industry.

Single women, and later married women, were encouraged to join the labour force and they patriotically flocked to the cause.

Women in the work force

Women had long been involved in paid jobs such as office work, nursing, teaching, clothing manufacture and domestic service, but not in heavy industry.

Rosie on her lunch break

Rosie the Riveter and Wendy the Welder were symbols of the campaign to get women into manufacturing and other jobs for the war effort.  However, many men took a lot of convincing about working alongside females.

But the severe shortage of workers and the need to rapidly produce ships, aircraft and other war materiel, broke down the gender bias and single women became an integral part of labour force.

Nevertheless, other prejudices needed to be overcome

  • married women working
  • Blacks working alongside Whites. (At the time the armed services were segregated.)

In the face of the country’s denial of civil right to its minorities, America’s condemnation of Nazi oppression looked increasingly hypocritical. Rosie the Riveter pamphlet.

Roosevelt stepped in with an executive order early in the war which required fair hiring in the defense industries.

This action and necessity saw the barriers fall, and soon men and women were working alongside each other: Whites, African Americans and Hispanics.

Women can do anything

American women took on any jobs that were offering.

A famous photo from the time shows women of different ethnicities with placards identifying their occupation:

  • machinist, welder, riveter
  • nurse, police officer, warehouse worker
  • painter, rigger, pipe fitter
  • electrician, tank cleaner, laborer
  • coppersmith, shipfitter, burner

At the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, across the Bay from San Francisco, about 40% of the welders were females by 1944.

When the women were taken on for riveting and welding work, they were trained and required to join the boilermakers’ union!

Ultimately 6 million women were on payrolls around the country during the war years up to 1945.

Some discrimination

A revolution had occurred in terms of gender roles, but there was still some prejudice.

In the famous photo mentioned above, the lady holding the LABORER sign was Black, and sadly Hispanics and Asians, as well as Blacks, were often placed in unskilled, lowly paid jobs.

There was also some workplace and housing discrimination.

A crucial role

The role of women in the home front labour force cannot be over-estimated.

Their importance was a key feature of the patriotic advertising to attract more and more into paid work:

  • Do the job he left behind

Women played a huge part in what was called The Arsenal of Democracy, and without them the US (and its Allies) may not have triumphed in World War Two.

(There is a Rosie the Riveter museum on the waterfront at Richmond where there were four large shipyards in the early1940. Richmond is readily accessible by BART train from San Francisco.)




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