By Tashi McQueen
America had a dilemma. Men were at war around the world – for a second time. It was hard enough trying to keep a country running – much less a country and multiple warfronts.
A choice had to be made. Would they let their supply chain dry up? Could they lean on other countries for food and materials? No. In the end, they chose to draw on their most valuable resource- women. And not just White women, but Black and Brown women too.
“Rosie the Riveter” became popular in 1943 when renowned artist Norman Rockwell was commissioned to create a work of art that would inspire American women to join the war front by working in factories at home. This interpretation of Rosie was firmly entrenched in the concept of women entering the workforce as a patriotic duty.
“Rosie,” represents a tireless World War II assembly line worker. And though she is based on female munition workers, she is mostly a fictitious character.
More than three million women took up jobs in defense plants, according to information released by the Library of Congress.
About 600,000 African-American women fled oppressive and often demeaning jobs as domestics and sharecroppers. They chose instead to help build airplanes, tanks, and ships, fueling America’s “arsenal of democracy,” according to the National Association of Black Military Women (NABMW).
America’s entrance into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 was met with pride and patriotism across the country. American citizens surged to enlist in all branches of the U.S. Military and women wanted to serve their country too.
“Prior to World War II, most Black women were either domestics or they were sharecroppers with farmers in the South, and sometimes they did double duty as sharecroppers, and then they worked in White folks’ homes as domestics,” said filmmaker Gregory S. Cooke in an interview with NABMW.
Cooke goes on to explain the totem pole of those called to serve. If White men were deferred due to job importance, then White women were chosen. If White women were not available, they picked Black men, and the last choice was Black women.
Many women did not get their jobs until 1944, the last full year of WWII. Mary McLeod Bethune, A. Philip Randolph, and Eleanor Roosevelt created pressure on then-president Roosevelt to sign an act that said any manufacturer that was getting government contracts for the war must hire people of color and women- leading to the 600,000 women that were employed.
Betty Reid Soskin and Lola Thomas are good examples of what Black “Rosie the Riveter” contributed.
Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest ranger with the National Park Service (NPS), grew up in Oakland, Calif., after the “Great Flood” that devastated New Orleans in 1927. Her family followed the larger migration trends of the time, working train cars until the last stop and settling at the end of the line in the West– far away from the American South. She worked in a segregated hall during the war as a file clerk.
Soskin worked with the NPS on a grant funded by Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) to uncover untold stories of African Americans on the homefront during WWII. This led to a temporary position working with the NPS at the age of 84. In 2007, Betty became a permanent NPS employee where she led public programs and shared her personal remembrances and observations at the park visitor center. She worked there until her retirement at age 100 in April 2022. She will be 101 years old in September.
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s great arsenal of democracy; it involved every man, woman, and child in the country,” said Soskin is an introduction video for the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Education Center in Richmond, Calif. “There were multiple stories on the home front, multiple stories.”
Lola Thomas was a Black woman who worked in a naval shipyard during World War II. In August 1942, African American newspapers reported that Mare Island had about 10 Black women working at the navy yard. Thomas was one of them.
Photos of her at work show her smiling large and getting the job done– a great example of Black “Rosie” during World War II.
Fast facts about women in the wartime industry from the National Association of Black Military Women (NABMW):
- By 1944, 1 out of 5 defense workers was a woman who had recently been a student
- By 1944 1 out of 3 defense workers were former full-time homemakers
- World War II was the first time in U.S. history that married women outnumbered single women workers. 1
- The largest employers of women during World War II were airplane manufacturers such as Boeing Aircraft, Consolidated Aircraft Corporation, and Douglass Aircraft Company. Other major employers included Chrysler, Goodyear, and Ford.
- Between 1940 and 1960 the number of working women doubled, rising from 15 percent of the workforce to 30 percent. Working mothers increased by 400.
- Most trade unions maintained separate seniority lists for men and women but by 1944 more than 3 million women made up 22 percent of all trade union membership in the U.S.
- A survey taken immediately after WWII by the Bureau of Women Workers revealed that 75 percent of women workers preferred to remain employed outside their homes
- By 1955, more women worked in the labor force than during World War II
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