The culture of the home front during World War II captured my interest at an early age. I idealized Rosie the Riveter. Rosie made it tolerable to be who I am. When I was thirteen, she told me that it was all right if I was tall, strong like the boys, and still wanted to be feminine. I loved perusing pictures of real women in factories, wielding machines against raw materials like heavy artillery against a tradition that told them women shouldn’t do “men’s things.” I loved wrapping my mind around the contradiction of Rosie’s look: perfectly coifed hair swept up into handkerchiefs, lipstick skillfully painted on, and worker’s coveralls with steel-toed books. At thirteen, Rosie the Riveter reminded me that women of generations past had gone before me, fought at the frontlines of the gender divide, and successfully bridged the divide of beauty and brawn, claiming their place as equals to anyone. Rosie told me that she had paved the way and had made it easier—no, expected—for me to be like her.
I started this essay looking for hard evidence of what Rosie had represented to me in my childhood memories: that World War II awakened a burning ambition in American women to work like a man and look better doing it. I wanted this essay to examine how women’s toiling efforts had helped win the war and advance women’s access to opportunities in the American workforce. However, while these effects appeared to be a matter of fact in my memory, the journey, experiences, and conditions of the women on the crest of this so-called wave of a social change seemed somewhat less idealistic. Although women were joining the American workforce in previously unequaled numbers, the message broadcast to women was that the maintenance of femininity and appropriate behavior would be policed in both the kitchen and on factory assembly lines. Click here to read “Donita (Gottsch) Mitchell: A Real-Life Rosie the Riveter.”
The so-called “liberation” of women that took place during the early 1940s was merely one of geography—women were asked to shed the shackles of full-time homemaking and don the harness of wartime factory production. By the summer of 1942, barely six months after the United States’ entry to the war was initiated by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, men had almost completely disappeared from the workplace (Mitchell; Webb). The draft and calling to enlist had plucked up babes as young as eighteen from their hometowns, wiped them off, shaved them clean, and sent them off to war. Our communities here in Nebraska lost one in five young men to overseas service 1941–1945 (Webb). As casualties mounted and the war continued, the need for soldiers, supplies, weapons, and workers increased. The American government responded by reclassifying fifty-five percent of jobs, allowing