The Campaign to Recruit “Rosies"

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In 1941, President Roosevelt called for U.S. aircraft factories to build 50,000 planes a year (only a few thousand were produced in 1940); in January of 1942, just one month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he asked for 60,000 planes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and 8 million tons of merchant shipping.

Since 10 million men had left for Europe or the Pacific the munitions industries and factories began to realize that they would need the country’s women as workers; so did the U.S. government.  This meant that women would be asked to enter factories and take jobs that had previously been considered “men’s work.”  Posters began to appear to attract women and encourage them to take defense jobs.  Many of them featured a strong, determined woman who said, “We Can Do It!”  The capable woman who appeared on the posters – and the women who joined in the defense effort – became embodied in the symbol of “Rosie the Riveter,” the patriotic woman who “took the job he left behind.” 

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Lots of single women responded to the call. In 1942, so many women left low-paying jobs that 600 laundries had to close down, as did several restaurants where waitresses quit en masse.  Teachers left their jobs, too. in Vancouver, Washington, a woman teacher made 75 cents an hour, and if she went to work in a shipyard, she would earn $1.25 an hour.  A woman shipyard worker could make $37 a week, while a salesclerk would make $21 and a waitress $14.

Not many married women responded to the call at first, especially if they had young children.  Some knew their husbands would not like it if they worked, and others wondered who would take care of their children.  By 1943, however, the War Manpower Commission created by President Roosevelt realized they were going to need more women workers, including those who might never have been employed before and those who did not have to work to support themselves.  Roosevelt created the Office of War Information (OWI), which attempted to “sell” the idea of war work to married women.

Magazines and recruiting posters showed single women, married women, mothers, and grandmothers installing exhaust pipes in planes and riveting and finishing bomber doors.  A film aimed at recruiting married women observed that “after a short apprenticeship, this woman can operate a drill press just as easily as a juice extractor in her own kitchen!”  Another film insisted that “running a drill press or a rivet gun” was no different from “operating a sewing machine.”  A radio commercial aired in Seattle, which had several defense plants, encouraging housewives to take defense-related jobs. This radio commercial ran in Seattle for four weeks; 2,200 women signed up during that period.

In order to attract housewives, the government realized it would have to make war jobs attractive to them.  In the past, a few jobs in these industries had been set aside for women, but they were always the lowest-paying ones. If women were being asked, however, to take the same jobs men had previously held, they would want the same pay.  The government supported this idea of equal pay for equal work and so did the American public; unfortunately, no law was passed to guarantee it, so factories varied as to how “equally” women were paid.

Before World War II, women made up 25% of the workforce in America; by 1944, women made up 36% of the workforce.  Altogether, six million women went to work during the war.  They worked in shipyards, lumber mills, steel mills, and foundries; they worked as welders, electricians, mechanics, and boilermakers; they operated streetcars, buses, cranes, and tractors; they worked as engineers, physicists, and chemists.  Women were also police officers, cab drivers, lawyers, journalists, farmers, and members of symphony orchestras.

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