Profile By: Shauna L. Benjamin
Until World War II, Donita (Gottsch) Mitchell had worked on her parents’ farm, milking cows and plowing fields before walking to town to work in the household of another family. However, once World War II started, she took on war-related jobs: pouring TNT for 500-pound fuse model bombs at the Mead Ordnance Plant, joining the ranks of other Rosie Riveters at the Martin Bomber Plant, and eventually operating a ten-ton crane used to maneuver the wings into place and attach them to the body of B-26 bombers. After the war, Donita worked for twenty-eight years as a travel agent at Lincoln Tour and Travel. While she never attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), she insisted that her boyfriend agree to use his GI Bill to finish his degree before she would marry him. While he earned his bachelor’s degree, Donita worked outside the home to help support him.
In the Fall 2010 semester, I was muddling my way through the process of finding someone to interview for the Women’s Archive Project. Feeling a little lost and not at all making headway on my search, I flipped through the September/October issue of Omaha Magazine. On the calendar of local events, one item jumped out at me: “Salute to Women on the Homefront, A Special Event Honoring Women who Served the Home Front during WWII” (“Calendar of Events” 15). I have always thought Rosie the Riveter was the quintessential example of powerful women from a generation defined by repressive gender norms. How great would it be to find my very own, real-life, Nebraska Rosie?
I did meet a real-life Nebraska Rosie at the Salute to Women on the Homefront event, but she wasn’t “my Rosie.”
She was not what I thought a
Growing up on a Nebraska farm during the Great Depression and World War II was not the most luxurious life. Coming out of the Depression, Donita’s family was very poor. During some of these arguably hardest years in our country’s history, Donita went to school in homemade dresses fashioned from feed sacks and ate vegetables grown on the family farm and canned in their own kitchen (Interview Oct. 2010). To this day, she keeps a quilt made by her great-aunt of swatches from all of those feed sack dresses.
When I asked Donita about her decision to take war jobs, she replied, “It was the thing to do: get yourself out into a war-related job” (Interview Oct. 2010). Women on the home front were not given the option of making their own decision about supporting the war or entering low-paying jobs. In the first of several positions supporting the war effort, Donita poured liquid TNT for five-hundred pound fuse model bombs at the Mead Ordnance Plant. Workers were not allowed to wear metal when handling TNT— not even a hair clip. When Donita got to work, she and the other workers changed into their factory clothes. They poured TNT by the bucketful into bombs positioned on wheeled racks of six. Then two women wheeled that cart away, carrying three thousand pounds of explosives. Naturally, that job was extremely dangerous.
In August of 1945, within days of the Enola Gay dropping the atomic bomb, 15,000 workers were fired from Glen L. Martin. The war was over, and the loyal employees of the Glen L. Martin Bomber Plant were out on the street. Without hesitation, Donita enrolled in business school to learn how to do clerical work .She packed her bags, moved to Omaha, and found a room for rent (Interview Oct 2010). One day at the bus stop, a man started chatting with her (Interview Nov 2010). He did not at all impress her, but he was someone to talk with while they waited for the bus In fact, when he introduced himself, she did not bother to remember his name. Over time, they began running into each other regularly at the bus station. By Christmas of 1945, the movie
When I first met Donita, I let what I had heard about female riveters of World War II color my impression of her. I also let those three years at the bomber plant define what I thought of her. But as I talked with her and heard her stories, the most valuable thing that I learned was to not judge a person on the arbitrary labels someone else has ascribed to them, especially a label that she was reluctant to embrace. The most valuable things I learned came from within the pages of her life. In the same way that the feminist movement of the 1980s has re-claimed J. Howard Miller’s Rosie as a symbol of womanpower, I reclaimed Donita’s story for myself as a reminder of how the real women in our lives find ways and spaces on the