Flexing her muscles

January 02, 2000|By Paula Watson | Paula Watson,Dallas Morning News

The World War II propaganda poster paints a portrait of the icon who gets my vote for Woman of the Century: Bandana wrapped around her head (with a singular feminine curl peeking out), muscular arms, blue workshirt. With her jaw set and chin held high, she proclaims, "We Can Do It."

Rosie the Riveter was true to her word.

Some 20 million women went to work and war in shipyards, refineries, aircraft plants, train yards, offices, stores, shops. Not all of them were Rosies, but Rosie the Riveter became the symbol of women's ability and willingness to do their part. Their mettle held the home front together while brothers, husbands, sons and fathers were shipped overseas. Oh, Rosie was not the first to answer a call to arms for the good of the nation. Her World War I predecessors had donated their steel-reinforced bras to that war effort, yielding 28,000 tons of steel -- enough to build two battleships.

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Rosie traded her dress, nylons and heels for overalls, socks, shoes. By 1944, some 3.5 million women had joined labor unions. Rosie could weld, wire electricity, repair a forklift, drive a truck in the oilfields and light a Bunsen burner, all while growing a victory garden in the back yard and helping out at the USO canteen.

Rosie the Riveter was christened when a Norman Rockwell illustration appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943. His Rosie exuded confidence and a "Hey, no sweat, I'm on the job" attitude. With an American flag as a backdrop and her metal lunchbox labeled "Rosie the Riveter," Rockwell's overalls-clad gal took a momentary break, with her trusty rivet gun resting in her lap as she downed a sandwich while crushing a copy of "Mein Kampf" like a bug underfoot. Here was a woman who didn't need a man to open a door for her, not when she could build one for herself!

What began as a tool of Washington's creative propaganda campaign became an essential cog in the U.S. war machine. Rosie could bolt with the best of 'em -- planes, trains, ships, tanks, munitions.

Rosie was romanticized in pop tunes and in movies. It was an era of Wonder Woman comics and the All-American Girls' Baseball League. Wash-and-wear clothes had just been created, along with synthetic estrogen.

It would be 20 years before passage of the Equal Pay Act. It would be 30 years before the Equal Rights Amendment and Title IX, and before "single career woman" Mary Tyler Moore skipped off to work on TV. But Rosies were on the job during a time that defined our national character. They were women on a mission. And they were bringing home a paycheck. Rosie was a first-class worker, patriot, citizen.

By 1946, millions of women were laid off, as soldiers returned to their old jobs. Rosie had met the challenge in what for many was a first job. She changed our consciousness about women working outside the home. She had earned her independence and a sense of self-realization. She never forgot what she did and who she was.

Yes, Rosies would return to home and hearth immediately after the war and take on the huge job of birthing those boomer babies. But out in those new suburbs, more was going on than diaper changing and bridge games. Former Rosies and their sisters were forming PTAs and the League of Women Voters. They had learned to mobilize. They had been there in wartime; in peacetime, they and their progeny would be a voice in changing the fabric of America.

Rosie was the foundation on which other women would help build a new life. This 20th-century icon had forever changed the way women see themselves -- and each other.

Their mothers had been homemakers. But their daughters would help change the face of the workplace. Rosies helped their daughters believe in their own futures.

Rosie's legacy is one of courage and grace.

Rosie was the beginning, not the end for working women.

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