Home Front Heroines

Profiles By: Shauna L. Benjamin


Part Two Recruiting 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 women and African Americans to fill them for the first time (Goodwin). The opening of traditionally male-held positions to women resulted in the first great exodus of women from the home to the workplace (Goodwin).

In an effort to keep mothers at home with the children, only single women were recruited for jobs previously filled by men (Webb). However, by 1943 the need for workers had increased to the point that married women were encouraged to join the ranks of factory workers if they did not have children under the age of fourteen (Goodwin; “Rosie the Riveter”). Nevertheless, by 1945, women with children younger than six were going to the factories (“Rosie the Riveter”) with the help of the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, who advocated timesaving solutions to benefit factory women, such as daycare facilities in the workplace and grocers bringing food and household items for sale (“First Lady Biography”).

Eleanor Roosevelt became an instrument for modeling behaviors befitting a married woman of the 1940s. Having four sons of her own in uniform (“First Lady Biography”), Mrs. Roosevelt was the ideal figurehead of American mothers and homemakers to parade what all women were expected to consider satisfactory patriotic endeavors. Mrs. Roosevelt put the entire White House on the same food and gasoline rationing system as the rest of the country and planted a victory garden on the south lawn of the White House (“First Lady Biography”). Households were encouraged to grow their own “victory” vegetable gardens, leaving the commercially-grown vegetables available to the troops. By 1943, almost half of the vegetables consumed in the United States came from these victory gardens (Goodwin; “The Martin Bomber Plant”).

Beyond modeling and encouraging wartime changes in the home, Mrs. Roosevelt introduced a government information film shown in movie theaters across the country with a message to women on the home front that there was no need for women to be ready to leap into action on the battlefield when the men fell exhausted (“Women in Defense” SM6): This was a war of production, industrial power, morale, health, and self-sacrifice on the home front (“Women in Defense” SM6). However, two hundred thousand women did serve in the military during WWII as nurses, pilots, and clerical workers, and over six million women took wartime jobs at factories or filling in for men on farms (“Women during WWII”). Twenty million women in total joined workplaces across the country, while another three million women volunteered with the Red Cross (“Women during WWII”). In World War II, the home front productivity race was playing a larger part than it ever had before. It is common knowledge that women contributed to the war effort; you may even know that propaganda campaigns were launched to beguile women into taking war jobs. Nevertheless, the underlying theme of these ads targeting the untapped female labor force was that perfection, objectification, and victimization were part of the job description.

Women did not immediately answer the call to become factory workers. Societal pressures and gender norms ideally placed women in the home and men in the workplace (“Rosie the Riveter”). Most people were opposed to women working, because it was perceived as taking jobs from men, a cultural relic from the Depression (“Rosie the Riveter”). The government launched a propaganda campaign to reverse the cogs in the machine that kept women under the boot of menial and unpaid labor. The propaganda campaign appealed to that same pressure and impulse directed at women to support the “home” by selling the importance of their personal war effort, now not only in the house, but also for the “home”-land (“Rosie the Riveter”).

To understand what a powerful impact the images in magazines and on posters would play in recruiting women for the wartime workforce, I had to imagine myself as a young woman during World War II. I ask you transport yourself back to the early 1940s, before mass dissemination of information through television and the internet constantly bombarded our senses. Colorful, graphic reflections of what women were supposed to be doing thrust real-world women into those roles. This propaganda campaign gave birth to the “Rosie the Riveter” icon— loyal, efficient, patriotic, and beautiful (“Rosie the Riveter”). Specifically, Norman Rockwell’s May 29, 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover was the first visual image to incorporate the “Rosie” name (Rockwell, 1943; “Rosie the Riveter”). Click on www.curtispublishing.com to see Rockwell’s image of Rosie the Riveter. J. Howard Miller created the now iconic “We Can Do It!” poster. Although not Miller’s original intent, this image has recently come to be known as the iconic “Rosie Riveter” (Kimble and Olsen 535). The fact that the woman in Miller’s poster has manicured nails and makeup tells the factory workers who were subjected to the image that even while they were working in dirty, sweaty factory conditions, they were still under the gaze of men. Therefore, they should have continued to maintain the image of an object of sexual desire (Kimble and Olsen 539).

However, that Saturday Evening Post illustration was not the end of the campaign for more women workers: one hundred twenty-five million advertisements were produced as posters and full-page magazine ads (Doyle). Spurred by the government’s propaganda mission, magazines, newspapers, and other periodicals reported on real-life Rosie Riveters and Wendy Welders (Doyle). Publishers were asked to participate in a “Women at Work Cover Promotion” to encourage more women to join the workforce, Life Magazine being one of the most well-remembered participants (Doyle). “The More Women at Work the Sooner We Win” slogan burst through the feminine sphere and encouraged women to acquiesce to their previously untapped labor to be utilized in the war effort (Omguide). However, informative pamphlets to the employers of new women workers titled Womanpower and Women Want to Get It Over insinuate a different attitude toward women working in wartime jobs. Womanpower states, “Woman power is a headache because… it involves a complete dislocation of normal routine” and goes on to say that neither men nor women want women to join the workforce (2). This single statement from a small pamphlet speaks volumes. Integrating women into the workforce was not only inconvenient, but it was also distasteful and disruptive to what was a “normal” and “acceptable” way for women to apply their labor power. Women Want to Get It Done shows images of beautiful young women primped and polished, wearing flowered dresses, happily sitting over a tedious task with quaint captions like, “Women are careful,” “Women are teachable,” “Women are cooperative,” and “Women are patient.” Things that were once cited as shortcomings of women were now touted as desirable qualities for the wartime production work being done. For example, “slow” became “careful,” “unskilled” became “teachable,” and “complacent” became “cooperative.” Regardless, the propaganda campaigns made World War II everyone’s war. The campaign was nationally successful—and Bellevue, Nebraska was no exception. However, they could not have known the role the local women of Bellevue would play in ending the war when they began assembling bomber planes.


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Part Three Nebraska’s Women Find Their Place Among the Heroines

On August 6, 1945, a bomb was dropped from a B-29 Superfortress Bomber over Japan (“Boeing B-29 Enola Gay”). The nearly nine thousand pound atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima, Japan killing over one hundred forty thousand men, women, and children. This day is regarded as the defining moment of World War II and is credited, along with a similar bombing in Nagasaki, with ending the war. However, before its infamous mission, this B-29, dubbed “Enola Gay,” came from somewhat humble beginnings (“Boeing B-29 Enola Gay”). Without the women workers of Bellevue, construction of the “Enola Gay” would not have been possible.

Just over one thousand residents watched a simple cinderblock building rise from the cornfields of rural Bellevue, Nebraska. Construction on the Glenn L. Martin Bomber Plant began in the spring of 1941, even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor (“Building