2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the "We Can Do It" poster and of the push to enlist women into the workforce due to the lack of laborers caused by World War II. The "Rosie the Riveter" look has been tried on by countless women since artist J. Howard Miller based his vision of the 1940s war woman on Michigan factory worker Geraldine Hoff. The iconic image is definitely striking, but what is more remarkable to consider are the experiences of a real-life Rosie, six million of whom entered the workforce in the 1940s. Thirty-six of these women, now all in their eighties or beyond, were interviewed for The Real Rosie the Riveter Project, a documentary collaboration between Spargel Productions and New York University's Tamiment Library.
The Project addresses numerous facets of a "Rosie's" existence: gendered discrimination at work, race relations, sexual orientation, the pervasive ideal of domesticity they had to contend with, and many other complicated ideas, each handled differently by the individual Rosies. In interviews that average about 20 minutes, each real-life Rosie tells her unique story. There is Thelma Edgar, who coached football, basketball, and baseball at a rural Alabama high school because the male coach had been drafted. There is Eva Chenevert, who could barely lift a drill when she first started at the Desoto Chrysler factory, and says "after a few weeks, it wasn't anything to just pick it up and work with it." Then there is Mildred Crow Sargent, who put herself through college and graduate school with the money she earned from her days as a riveter. Ms. Sargent is a real hoot and a half, explaining: "It was really hard [transitioning from Nashville, Tennessee to Detroit, Michigan] because we had to wear pants to work in, and I understand that was necessary. But in Nashville, at that time, nice girls didn't wear pants."
So much of the modern American feminist movement is rooted in the struggles and successes of these female trailblazers, and for any history buff, their stories are literally riveting.
The full online video archive is available here.
(Image source: US Library of Congress via Wikipedia)