What Happened to Rosie at the End of the War?

By Mary Dellasega

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By the end of the war in 1945, America had produced over 296,429 planes, 102,351 tanks, 372,431 artillery pieces, 47 million tons of artillery ammunition, 87,620 warships, and 44 billion rounds of small-arms ammunition.  It was called a “miracle” by Time Magazine.  Donald Nelson, the Chairman of the War Production Board said the effort was, “a remarkable demonstration of power,” and one that could never have happened without Rosie the Riveter.

Even before the war ended, the War Manpower Commission had stopped recruiting women and asked the Office of War Information to do the same.  Now they tried to “sell” to women the idea that it was their patriotic duty to leave their jobs and go home to take care of their husbands and children.

A March of Time newsreel addressed women workers, telling them that

The coming of peace will work no unemployment hardships on you.  You women have been employed because the armed forces called your husbands, brothers, or sons. . . . Each serviceman will get his job back when this war is won.  And you women and girls will go home, back to being housewives and mothers again, as you promised to do when you came to work for us.  If all industry would adopt this simple policy, there would be no serious post-war problem of unemployment.

Women who continued to work after the war were portrayed by the media as selfish, causing all sorts of problems, including juvenile delinquency, divorce, and crime. 

Many women found working outside the home had not only helped the war effort, it had changed them, increasing their self-esteem. They liked earning good money and they liked deciding how to spend it. Half of the women workers wanted to keep their jobs after the men returned..  But when the soldiers came home, the returning serviceman would always get the well-paid factory job and Rosie the Riveter would not.

Most of women workers were fired or laid off.  Juliet Gattus worked at an aircraft factory.  When she was fired, she wrote a letter to President Roosevelt:

I happen to be a widow with a mother and son to support.  I would like to know why, after serving a company in good faith for almost three and a half years, it is now impossible to obtain employment with them.  I am a lathe hand and was classified as skilled labor, but simply because I happen to be a woman, I am not wanted.

Nona Poole was a welder.  She tried over and over to get another welding job, but employers just laughed.  One said, “I wouldn’t doubt you’re a good welder, but we don’t have restroom facilities for women.”  She said, “I’ll bring my own potty, just give me a curtain.”

Gladys Belcher was also a welder:

I knew the job would terminate when the war was over, so I went to school after work for four hours so that when I got out of there, I could get a job welding.  They were needing welders at Mare Island (navy shipyard). So I took my card and all my credentials and I laid my papers on the desk. He said, “If you was a man, we’d hire you, but we can’t hire you because you’re a woman.”

Gladys Belcher found a job doing kitchen work; she was unable to find anything else even though she had undergone extensive training.  “My children had to be taken care of, and I’d bought a little home.  It had to be paid for.  I had to get a job somewhere, somehow.  I know that’s what I was thinking about when I left there.  I got a job in a restaurant, working in the kitchen.  Hot, hard work.  Heavy lifting.  It was a lot harder than working in the shipyard and a lot less pay.”  Gladys worked at this job for the next 17 years.

There were jobs available for Rosies, then, but they were low-pay, low-status jobs, dead-end positions that wouldn’t go anywhere.  Women found jobs as grocery clerks, shopgirls, and typists.  Three million women left the workplace after World War II—but there were still more women working after the war than there had been before. Even though Rosies couldn’t keep their jobs, they learned what they could do and had a chance to prove themselves.  Once the traditional stereotypes about what women could do and should do were overcome, women had a chance in the workplace, and it wasn’t forgotten.  They remembered the satisfaction of being paid well and being independent.  They remembered being told by their country that they could do anything.

And one day, they would!