The Rosie the Riveter Strategy Today

The media keeps telling us that skilled workers are hard to find so it must be true. In this article, “Can’t find skilled workers? Try this American strategy from World War II” operations strategist Rebecca Morgan suggest that corporations implement a Rosie the Riveter Strategy for finding workers:

Manufacturers fret about a skills shortage and the loss of powerful knowledge as baby boomers retire. Instead of fretting, I suggest looking back to the beginning of World War II as an easily available and proven response to both concerns.

At the beginning of WWII, millions of American men left jobs in manufacturing to fight the war. Those departures happened as the need for manufacturing to build war materials was skyrocketing.

American industry did a great job of bringing women in from homemaker duties and developing “Rosie the Riveter,” a productive manufacturing worker. How?

While I love the idea of getting more women working in manufacturing jobs (or any jobs) Morgan fails to recognize some of the key components of that strategy that are not available to American Industry today.

First, the Office of War Information (OWI) which promoted the war effort from 1942 to 1945  ran an unrelenting well-coordinated PR campaign to disseminate information about the war consistently.  The OWI produced radio programs and films, distributed magazine publishing guides with story ideas and top quality photos, and printed up those recruitment posters we all love.

Even prior to the US entry into World War II the National Youth Administration, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, fostered employment for  young men and women and brought a lot of new workers to the trades.  While production levels had not yet ramped up for the war effort, there was increasing need for skilled workers just prior to WWII because of WPA projects like the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 which provided government funding for shipyards and for shipbuilding contracts to improve our maritime capabilities. And American Industry was producing war related products (including ships) for the British.

Once war was declared, many factories converted to provide wartime products.  For example, Ford stopped manufacturing automobiles and began manufacturing armored vehicles for the military. In fact, for a couple of years new cars were banned by the War Production Board, the government agency tasked with managing wartime production of goods.  Other factory conversions included a sparkplug factory that switched to producing machine guns, a stove manufacturer that began making lifeboats, a merry-go-round factory made gun mounts; a toy company made compasses; a corset manufacturer produced grenade belts; and a pinball machine plant began to make armor-piercing shells.****

The government also allocated funds for childcare centers between 1943 and 1946 through the Lanham Act, figuring if women were going to work outside the home they may need help with the important job of raising children (the children are our future, right?).

From a Congressional Research Report, Child Care: The Federal Role During World War II: “During World War II, the federal government supported a nationwide program of child care centers, intended to boost war production by freeing mothers to work. Labor force participation of women grew significantly during the war, and children of working mothers were eligible for the child care service. The centers had a peak enrollment near 130,000 children in 1944.”

Another component of the World War II era “Rosie the Riveter” campaign was less strategy and more the “luck” of history itself and the state of the economy.  Many of the women taking on these jobs came out of the Depression desperate for jobs, they came from the Dustbowl and from failed farms in the Midwest with a need to provide for themselves and their families.  These jobs were attractive because they paid well.

Rose Barquist, for example, travelled to California in June of 1941 in search of a better life. “My future in Iowa would have been to go to work in someone’s house for three dollars a week maybe, and be seduced by somebody and be a farmer’s wife, the rest of my life, if I was lucky,” she said. ** At the Kaiser Shipyards she’d earn $1 per hour, $1.20 if she worked graveyard shift. (doesn’t sound like much by today’s standards, but compared to $3 per week, Rose would be flush with cash).

And there was also patriotism brought on by the war.  It was time when Americans were supportive of the war and willing to sacrifice in ways that just don’t happen in today’s war.

Bottom line:  the idea of a Rosie the Riveter strategy is cute, but until the U.S. government decides that it wants to support THIS country, OUR workers, OUR industries, it’ll never happen.

*  *   *   *

**Rose Barquist, “Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project” conducted by Samuel J. Redman in 2011, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2012.

****Source: Boundless. “Economic Conversion and Business in WWII.” Boundless U.S. History. Boundless, 10 Jun. 2015. Retrieved 10 Jun. 2015 from

Learn more here:

“Here’s What Happened The One Time When The U.S. Had Universal Childcare”
Automobile Factories Switched to War Production As America Entered World War II

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Submerging myself in Rosie the Riveter History

For the last week or so I’ve been reading oral history transcripts from Rosie the Riveters, listening to oral histories of Rosie the Riveters, and watching Bomb Girls on Netflix.  And I’ve been reading about those women too:

Girls of Atomic CityThe Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan (Touchstone, March 2013)

Drawing from the voices and experiences of the women who lived and worked in Oak Ridge, The Girls of Atomic City rescues a remarkable, forgotten chapter of World War II from obscurity. Denise Kiernan captures the spirit of the times through these women: their pluck, their desire to contribute, and their enduring courage. “A phenomenal story,” and Publishers Weekly called it an “intimate and revealing glimpse into one of the most important scientific developments in history.”

Our Mothers WarOur Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II by Emily Yellin, Free Press; Reprint edition (March 7, 2005)

Our Mothers’ War is an eye-opening and moving portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society. Never before has the vast range of women’s experiences during this pivotal era been brought together in one book. Now, Our Mothers’ War re-creates what American women from all walks of life were doing and thinking, on the home front and abroad. These heartwarming and sometimes heartbreaking accounts of the women we have known as mothers, aunts, and grandmothers reveal facets of their lives that have usually remained unmentioned and unappreciated.

Bottom line is that I can’t stop thinking about those women.

Every Monday I host a drop-in writing group.  I pull prompts from a big box of prompts I’ve written, or stolen from fellow writers (Pablo Neruda lines from The Book of Questions make great prompts, for example). I set the timer–seven minutes is usually a good amount of time–and we write.  We write without the critic, we write messy sentences, scribble cliches, and sometimes, if we’re luck we get some great story starts.  This past Monday every prompt seemed to spark a story about a Rosie as I recalled bits of stories from the many of read.  Here’s a couple of examples:

PROMPT: “Something happened there….”

Something happened there at the Shipyards: Eleanor learned how to weld. It wasn’t the two-day course they offered when she “joined the war effort” like the poster advertised down at the post office, it was in the weeks that followed. First they put her in the pre-fab shop tacking—basically readying the workpiece for the more experienced welder to lay a bead. They called it Heliarc welding back then, her torch was called a stinger, its sharp, hot, tungsten electrode jutted out and carried an arc that held enough heat to melt a seam connecting between two pieces of metal. It was amazing.

It didn’t take her too long to get the hang of it, to be good enough to weld on more important parts of a ship, the long beams that made the frame of the bottom of the ship. Cranes would carry the pieces into an open shop and cranes would have to carry them out.

The bay fog lingered for hours, and even when the sun came out, down it seemed it was always cold. Not like summer in Iowa. Despite the heat of her stinger, and the three layers of clothing she wore, Eleanor was always cold.

PROMPT: work

Work. It was never something she shied away from. In fact, she was so eager to start work at the shipyard, to join her older sister and her mother that she lied about her age to get a work permit. “I was just 15,” she said. “Had to have that statement notarized.”

Rose’s father Henry was the first to head west and when production ramped up and they began hiring women at the shipyards, he sent word back home. Rose, along with her sister and mother travelled to California from Iowa in 1942. The buses were so crowded with enlisted men who were give priority that they almost didn’t get on board. Rose and her sister traded off sitting in the aisle on a suitcase.

They were so desperate for work since The Depression, since losing their farm, that they were willing to take work anywhere.

Rose’s first job was in the office tallying up worksheets but on the third day her boss came in and said “We’ll have find something else for you, I think. You’re just not suited for this, are you?”

“I was never any good at numbers,” she said.

Rose began working the next day as an expeditor. She’d check in with the project manager to see what they needed and her job was go the supply house and get it. As with any new person on the job, and maybe especially because she was a girl, the guys would sometimes send her on fool’s errands, like the time they told her to get a left-handed crescent wrench. “But it was all in good fun,” she said.

*   *  *

The great thing about these exercises is not that they are the beginnings of this Searching for Rosie book, in fact as I look over the transcripts again I see I assigned details to the wrong Rosie the Riveter or I got the details wrong.   However, these exercises offered me a way in…  allowed me to tap into my subconscious and discover which stories I found most compelling.  And so now I have written the first five pages of my sample chapter.

I’m still overwhelmed and I’m in awe of both Yellin and Kiernan for their ability to immerse themselves so deeply and to create such compelling narratives.  But I feel good. I have begun.

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What to tell your husband

I am often dismayed by how little progress we have made towards equality for women, then I run across something like this  “What to tell your husband if he objects to your getting a war-time job” poster from WWII and I think, wow, I guess we have come far.

wwii-women-war-workAnd even in my lifetime we’ve come far….  did you know:

Until 1974 women could not apply for credit.

Until the 70s (and even into the 90s in some states) marital rape was not a crime.

Until 1978 a woman could be fired if she were pregnant.

More over here at Ms. magazine–>


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Stats on Women Working at Richmond Shipyards during WW2


1943:  41% of welders at the Richmond Yards were women.

2015:   2% of welders in the U.S. are women.

Note, “burners” cut metal (with a torch) rather than weld metal.

At peak production in 1943 there were 90,000 employees (24,500 women) and the average worker earned $61.00 per week.

From A Booklet of Illustrated Facts about the Shipyards at Richmond California, Second edition published by the Permanente Metals Corporation (Richmond, California: June 30, 1944)

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How Rosie Dressed for Success (and Safety)



I really wonder how many  women needed to be told not to wear high heels for work at the shipyard.

Many of the women who took on shipyard jobs came from the farmlands of  the Midwest, or from the Dust Bowl. They knew about hard work.  They would have known how to dress. At least the high heels part.

It’s also interesting to note that the “proper” way to dress is still pretty form-fitting to show off those womanly curves.

In reality, “You couldn’t tell one from the other unless you saw their welding outfit, or you had a torch,” said Rosa Duran, who worked in the Kaiser Shipyards from 1942 to 1945.**

Seriously, health and safety were big concerns. In the 1930s 37 per 100,000 manual labor workers died each year.  In addition to encouraging safety, Kaiser established  a health care program for the workers at the shipyards.  Though not completely altruistic–onsite clinics kept the workers healthy and working–this was an innovation in industry and would later become the Kaiser Permanente healthcare company.

Read more about the history of Kaiser on their website–>

** Excerpted from Rosie the Riveter World War II American Homefront Oral History Project: An Oral History with Evelyn Duran and Rosa Silvas conducted by DavidWashburn, 2002, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2007.
















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Today in Rosie the Riveter History: May 29

RosieTheRiveter-231x300The Saturday Evening Post published the cover featuring a female riveter in 1943.  The name on her lunchbox says “Rosie.”

From “Rosie the Riveter” by Marcy Kennedy Knight at  the Saturday Evening Post:

Mary was a 19-year-old phone operator in Arlington, Vermont, when Rockwell called and asked if she “wouldn’t mind posing for a painting.” She posed twice because the white blouse and shoes for the first sitting were not what he was looking for. Mary explains that yes, she did hold a ham sandwich while posing; she did have the white handkerchief that peeked from a pocket; she never saw Hitler’s book Mein Kampf; and the rivet gun was a lightweight fake. “I’ve had people come to me and say, ‘How did you ever hold that rivet machine?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘it wasn’t too bad.’” Rockwell had transformed the petite, 110-pound Mary into a brawny, muscular woman for the painting. She says, “He called me and apologized for making me so large.”  READ MORE AT THE SATURDAY EVENING POST WEBSITE–>

The original painting is now at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Mary Doyle Keefe passed away earlier this year at the age of 92.

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Rosie’s Enduring Legacy?

When you begin writing about something like Rosie the Riveter friends start sending you everything they find that has to do with Rosie….  Today’s link from a friend was from the Ford Motor Company–a paid slide show post on the New York Times (international) website.

Ford Motor Company branding campaign

Ford Motor Company branding campaign

Apparently Rosie is part of their branding campaign, you know, because of all those women working in Ford factories….. Actually, I have no idea how many women work in Ford factories today and in all fairness, it does make some sense–Ford Motor Company employed a lot of women in their factories during World War II.  But like everyone else, the company sent them back to work in their own homes after the troops came home.

After the war ended, factories returned to their automotive roots, but the imagery from the era remained a symbol of empowerment for female workers of all industries. In the 1980s, Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster was rediscovered and re-appropriated as a feminist symbol. Today, its imagery still graces everything from dorm room walls to celebrity Instagram accounts. Though women have yet to reach workplace equality, the original Rosies remain a rallying point for a movement whose momentum hasn’t abated.

And of course the irony here is that the “symbol of empowerment for female workers” really wasn’t “for all workers” as this particular slide maintains. Let’s remember, that while 2007 Bureau of Labor Statistics reports cite women welders at about 6% , current numbers have gone down–perhaps due to the recession–and now only 2% of welders are women.

But even 6% is nothing to write home about.

So really, it’s all symbol and little substance…..

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