Written by Margie Fishman Tuesday, April 10 2012
“In 1941, the men went to war. The women went to work.”
So begins the trailer to “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project,” an ambitious oral history archive of the women who traded their aprons for the assembly line, who redefined the social expectations of what a “good girl” could achieve.
Developed in collaboration with New York University’s Tamiment Library, the project consists of 48 filmed interviews conducted over the last two years by filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly of Spargel Productions. Now in their 80s and 90s, these “Rosies” catalyzed women’s independence and economic power; bridged racial, class and gender divides; and took tremendous pride in their work. After all, everyone knew someone who would be relying on a battleship, tank, parachute or gun mount that a Rosie built.
The women’s stories are inspiring: Arkie Huffman was so tiny that she would crawl into the fuselage and buck rivets while working at Boeing. Shirley Clark was unaware that she was part of a team to build the atomic bomb. At age 16, Marion Yagoda began making wing tips for B-29s because her father assumed that young women had no use for a high school diploma; Yagoda earned her degree more than 65 years later. The interviews are publicly available here, just in time for Women’s History Month in March and the 70th anniversary of artist J. Howard Miller’s iconic “We Can Do It!” poster. Sponsored by Westinghouse, the poster positioned American working women as strong, determined and reliable.
All told, it is estimated that between 8 and 16 million women were employed during World War II in shipbuilding, aircraft manufacturing, and the automobile and transportation industries. Comprising one-third of the workers in these industries, they produced 6 million tons of bombs and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. Many abandoned their work as laundresses, maids and field workers earning $1 a day to move hundreds of miles to the big city, where they made 20 or 30 times that amount, toiled in the spray of turpentine and washed their hands with motor oil. After the war, they were given pink slips and told to return to quiet lives of domesticity.
“We just wanted to give them their place in history,” said Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who conceived of the project while researching a Rosie the Riveter-themed MFA thesis play as a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
Hemmerdinger was surprised by the lack of primary source material available about real-life Rosies. She began reaching out to friends, colleagues and the American Rosie the Riveter Association to gather interview subjects. A spinoff documentary film and Broadway musical are in the works.
Hemmerdinger is also the founding board member of the nonprofit Dancing Dreams, which helps children with physical challenges and their teenage helpers gain confidence through dance.
Among the featured Rosies is Mazie Mullins, a West Virginia native who went from pulling weeds in her father’s cornfields to washing coal dust out of sheets in a boardinghouse. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 17-year-old Mullins moved to Akron, Ohio to work six days a week as a riveter for Goodyear Aircraft. She wrote dutifully to her boyfriend, Robert, who was eventually killed in combat before the two could marry.
“If I hadn’t been working out there in Akron and helping end the war, I don’t know if I would have stood it or not,” Mullins remembered. “But it seemed that it really encouraged me to just keep on.”
Click here for more information on The Real Rosie the Riveter Project.
Check out more stories about pioneering women:
Tired of the lack of recognition women receive for contributions to American architecture, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation is finally giving credit where it's due.
Chief Justice Jean Toal didn't quite realize her childhood dream of becoming a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but she is the first woman to be elected to South Carolina's Supreme Court.
Margie Fishman is an award-winning journalist with more than a dozen years of experience contributing to national newspapers, magazines, websites and trade publications. As a former beat reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Raleigh News & Observer, she covered politics, business, housing and education, and was dispatched to the field to report on Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Margie’s list of freelance clients has included Atlanta Woman, National Geographic, Newsday, Wise Bread, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Emory University, Georgia Magazine and many more. She writes frequently about trends in personal finance on her website, www.margiereports.com.