During the World War II years more than six million women entered the workforce. Many were hired for positions that had up until that time been defined as “men’s jobs” in basic industries: automobiles, shipbuilding, aircraft manufacturing, electrical equipment manufacture, and transportation. At the peak of wartime employment, women constituted between one-third and one-half the workers in many basic industries. Some historians have called this change transformative as it swept aside opposition to hiring women workers and cleared the way for a massive expansion of the female workforce in the second half of the twentieth-century. However, a closer look at the evidence indicates that World War II never fully legitimized the entry of women into the labor market. Women were seen as being in the workforce on a temporary basis, for the duration of the national emergency. The types of social supports and day care facilities that would have had to be established for women to fully participate in the labor market were never put into place. Employers and many labor unions assumed that when the men came home from the service they would reclaim their jobs and women would return to the domestic sphere. These expectations were reinforced by the memory of the Great Depression with many policy makers, union officials, and business men thinking that unemployment would once again become a problem and that male heads of households needed to be assured that they could return to their jobs. Whatever the cause, at the end of the war the vast majority of the Rosies left or were forced out of their wartime production jobs. Many found other work, mostly in traditional female jobs. Others married and raised families in an era when the Feminine Mystique defined domestic relations in the United States.
Spargel Productions and New York University’s Tamiment Library are collaborating on a project to document the stories of Rosie the Riveter. These oral histories were created on digital video and portions of them will be used in the forthcoming Spargel Production film “The Real Rosie the Riveter.” They are being preserved at the Tamiment Library. Most are full life histories describing early family history, education, employment experiences before the war, wartime work, and life after World War II. As one would expect, a complex picture that emerges from these interviews. Looking back the narrators found their wartime work experience transformative. It changed the ways in which they viewed themselves, instilling confidence, leading them to question the idea of separate spheres and providing a sense of pride and accomplishment that remained with them throughout their lives. This may be one of the reasons that most of these Rosies continued to work outside the home. Many went on to college and graduate school, and had very interesting careers. Beyond that the experiences varied. African American women faced particular challenges with racial discrimination. Class, ethnicity, and sexual orientation also defined the wartime and postwar experiences of many of the Rosies.
The intellectual scaffolding for the interviews presented on this site is based on a growing body of historical literature about Rosie the Riveter. Discussions between narrators and interviewers focused a wide range of topics including:
- Transitions from farm to factory, rural to urban America
- Relations with supervisors
- Gender relations and discrimination at work
- The development of new patterns of occupational segregation
- Sex typing of jobs during the war
- Images of femininity in the war plants
- Equal pay
- Ambiguities in job classification as gender definitions become malleable
- Trade union experiences
- Women’s role in the union movement
- Ideas about seniority and aspirations for permanent jobs
- How experiences vary between industries and job sites
- Family roles
- The continuing ideal of domesticity
- Issues of child care and housework--the “double day”
- Race relations
- Sexual orientation and work experience
- Getting, spending, and consumerism
- Conflict and accommodation as pre-war sex segregation returns
- Response to losing their jobs at war’s end
- Post-war employment experiences- most of these Rosies continued to work after the war.
Spargel Productions is a film and documentary production company based in New York City. Filmmakers and theater artists Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly founded Spargel in 2002 to produce their award-winning documentary “Asparagus! Stalking the American Life.” This feature film premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2006 and went on to win Best Documentary and Audience Choice Awards in festivals across the country. “Asparagus!” was released on DVD in 2008 and broadcast on PBS in 2009. They are currently in production for The List, a Sundance Institute funded feature about the rising crisis of youth homelessness. Anne and Kirsten share a deep commitment to film and documentary projects that celebrate the transformative power of the human spirit. They have a shared interest in the curious, quirky and wondrous stories of life in the United States and the shifting definition of what it means to be an American. With backgrounds in theatre, including character and story development, they share a dedication to projects in which the individual human experience illuminates the face of society as a whole. For more information on additional projects, please visit www.spargelproductions.com
Elizabeth Hemmerdinger is a born-and-bred New Yorker and award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She is the founder of “Behind The Scenes at Tisch,” a program dedicated to developing new works by new writers at New York University, where she received her MFA in 2003. Her plays have been presented in venues from New York to Los Angeles, including the Williamstown Theater Festival, The Denver Center and, most recently, the University of Texas/Austin. Her play “Squall” is available through Playscripts, Inc., which has published her short works in two collections. Her short film “Pissed,” starring Jessica Hecht and Grant Shaud, will debut in the coming months. Elizabeth is a founding board member of Dancing Dreams, a program that fosters an environment where children with physical challenges, along with their teenage helpers, participate in the art of dance, giving them a chance to experience the pure joy of movement. Elizabeth is also a board member of Women's Voices For Change, an organization dedicated to redefining life after 40, which runs www.womensvoicesforchange.org.
Anne, Kirsten and Elizabeth were inspired by the extraordinary women of The Real Rosie The Riveter Project to embark on a new feature documentary that will explore the sacrifice and dedication of these forgotten World War II heroes and their transformative stories. The filmmakers will take you beyond the iconic “We Can Do It” poster girl into the experiences of real Rosies from diverse backgrounds, challenging the popular perception of women in American History. The project is currently in development, thanks to a generous grant from the Hite Foundation.
For The Real Rosie The Riveter Project:
- Dr. Michael Nash, Chief Historian and Curator
- Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, Executive Producer
- Anne de Mare, Director and Producer
- Kirsten Kelly, Director and Producer
- Brian Hoffman, Manager of Publications and Access
- Mark Reilly, Site Design
- Melitte Buchman, Digital Content Manager
- Alexandra Naides, Associate Producer
- MiMi Rose Hall, Associate Producer
- Sacha Schwimmer, Associate Producer/Historical Research
Special Thanks to Carol Mandel; Donnaleen Lanktree and the American Rosie The Riveter Association; Frances Resheske; Dale Hemmerdinger; Alice Moscoso; and to all our funders:
- Mr. Robert H. Abrams
- ACC Construction
- Benjamin and Susan Winter Foundation
- Bernard & Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust
- Senator Richard and Mrs. Cynthia Blumenthal
- Consolidated Edison Co. of New York
- Denise & Andrew Saul Foundation
- Heidi Ettinger
- Charlotte K. Frank, Ph.D.
- Schiff Hardin
- Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg
- Michael Katz
- Mrs. Naomi B. Levine
- Chris McGuinness
- PLM Foundation
- Palisades Media Corp
- Peter Malkin Fund
- Jack and Valerie Rowe
- Mr. Judith Seslowe
- Silverstein Properties, Inc.
- Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation
- Town Hall Foundation, Inc
- Lillian Vernon Foundation
and A Very Special Thanks to all the Rosies who participated in this project.