What would it take to be a 21st century “Rosie”?
Scanning aisle after aisle of men's work clothes and accessories at the local Kmart, I spotted the treasure I needed to complete my Halloween costume—a bright red bandanna. Later, a friend demonstrated how women used to tie those bandannas on their heads in the '40s. All I needed to complete the picture was a dark blue coverall—with sleeves rolled up ready to work—and a Westinghouse Electric employee badge pinned to my collar. I was set.
When I showed the party pics to friends, one suggested that the photo of me as Rosie the Riveter could be used to launch an ad campaign for women in the workforce trying to balance work and family. You know, like the “Alpha Striver” in What Women Really Want, coauthored by Celinda Lake and Kellyanne Conway, who “is determined to succeed both professionally and personally” and “didn't get the memo that women can't have it all.” Rosie revisited? “She'll need more than a red bandanna and a tool belt to ’have it all,'” I replied.
Rosie the Riveter became a symbol of unity and female solidarity during World War II. Prior to the war, most American women found only a few conventional job openings available to them. They could be secretaries, teachers or nurses (so-called “pink-collar” jobs), but they couldn't work in higher-paying factories where muscle-power was involved. A wartime ramp-up of the workforce responding to WWII changed that and opened up to women a wide range of new employment possibilities.
The government used a clever poster ad campaign depicting Rosie the Riveter to encourage women to step into the gap and take up the slack left by men who had gone to war. Many women who had worked pink-collar jobs, or in lower-paying women's industrial jobs, flocked to war production work as an opportunity to learn new skills and make higher wages. The number of women in the industrial workforce increased from 12 to 19 million between 1941 and 1945.
Millions of women took jobs welding, building tanks, assembling bombs and greasing machinery. Ironically, even though many factory managers considered them better workers than men, they were paid only 60 percent of what men made doing the same job. The government insisted that Rosie the Riveter was a temporary response to war. "A woman is a substitute," claimed a War Department brochure, "like plastic instead of metal.”
The image most associated with Rosie is J. Howard Miller's famous poster for Westinghouse in 1942, entitled “We Can Do It!” Subsequently, a song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, entitled “Rosie the Riveter,” was released in early 1943. Finally, the connection between the name of Rosie and the character was made by Norman Rockwell with his illustration for the cover of the May 29, 1943, Saturday Evening Post, which depicted a female worker who was recognizable as Rosie.
While the “Rosie” campaign elevated women to an economic status previously unknown to the majority of women, it also marked the beginning of women's roles in the military and in the U.S. economy. Women's involvement in the workforce would not end up being temporary, as had been suggested by the government. Just as the use of plastic continued after the war ended, women in the workplace and in the military have persisted since WWII. However, there were significant efforts made to return women to the home and to the lower-paying jobs they held before the war.
After the war, a campaign was reinstated to get women out of the jobs they held. The government attempted to influence the content of magazines, movies and advertising to bring women back into the home. Women's magazines started glorifying housewives. The government also suggested that women were no longer patriotic if they continued in their highly paid jobs. But women never really left employment; they couldn't afford to.
Our country has been at war in Iraq now for more than two years. We've lost over 2,000 lives, and congressional appropriations have exceeded $211 billion, according to the Center for American Progress. With President Bush's approval numbers plummeting, and the administration insisting on this endless and expensive war, I could picture a new “Rosie” campaign designed to generate more involvement and enthusiasm. For example, a new ad could encourage women to take jobs with companies like the Carlyle Group, a war-industry Washington, D.C.-based global private investment firm with more than $30 billion of equity in 2005.
If a wartime Rosie launched '40s women into feminist unity and workforce participation, then a “Rosie Revisited” campaign could be used to boost us to the next level: Women holding jobs with equal pay while raising their families. The poster could depict a 21st century woman at a computer work station—a child in one arm and a phone in the other hand. At the bottom of the poster would be an announcement of childcare availability, maternity leave benefits and equal pay rates. To achieve her full potential professionally and personally, the 2005 “Rosie” needs the support of her family, employer, community and government for her decision to have a family and a career. That's what it would take for a woman to be 21st century “Rosie.”
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.