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 working woman from World War II should be. She does not identify herself as a feminist; she does not think that she is a hero of the war; and she does not think that she changed the world. She does not even call herself a Rosie Riveter. As we got to know one another over the course of our interview, I came to realize why she was not the Rosie the Riveter: World War II did not define her existence. Rosie the Riveter was created during World War II to symbolize how women worked outside of the home to support the cause. However, Donita did not become a strong, active, enterprising person because of the war. She has been a powerful and inspirational woman in every era she has lived. What started as a disappointing revelation at the beginning of my research ultimately convinced me that while I might not have found the Rosie of my imagination, I found a story that needed to be told. It is the story of a young woman living her life and doing right by her family, herself, and her country.
After several weeks of phone tag, the two of us finally met in the family room of her sprawling ranch-style house, surrounded by the cornfields her father had farmed. Donita sat in her stand-up recliner, I in a Naugahyde office chair. The blustery November afternoon prompted her to turn on a space heater. I endured the temperature, and listened intently as Donita talked; the translucent skin on her hands revealed a map of blue veins that traced the paths she had traveled.
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.