by Sue Davenport
Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 42-43
So say the women in the 60-minute documentary, THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER, by Connie Field. In an hour of vibrant feminist filmmaking, five women who worked in industrial production in World War II reflect on their wartime experiences, highlighting the unusual working conditions that the high-pressured war production drive created for women. Three black women and two white, these "Rosies" came from divergent backgrounds: Illinois and Arkansas farms, Brooklyn and Detroit. The film projects the women being interviewed in their present home, job, or neighborhood, some posed against an industrial background reminiscent of their WWII jobs in factories and shipyards.
Government, industry, and newsreel film captured the high spirits, skilled work, and camaraderie of the 2.5 million women who went to work in wartime industry and the popular imagination with the symbols of Wanda the Welder and Rosie the Riveter. This official media treatment of the women workers provides the other major theme of the film. The film cuts back and forth between the women's personal views as expressed in typical documentary interviews and the official ideology of the wartime period as revealed in propaganda films. A vast gap appears between the women's experiences and the official version.
The widely propagated notion that the U.S. woman is born to be a housewife has been slowly undercut by the rising participation of women in the paid workforce and changing family patterns throughout the twentieth century. However, deeply held cultural values die slowly and serve to mask and mystify people's actual experiences, and thereby, their consciousness. Large groups of U.S. women — rural women, minority women, urban white working class women — have always worked longer and harder throughout their lives than their middle class counterparts. The social model of woman as housewife and mother, with leisure for bridge games and community volunteering, derives from aristocratic lives. It allows middle class women and some working class women to imitate upper class women. But it masks the fact that most women do extensive unpaid labor in their own homes, and many women face the "double day" of unpaid labor at home and paid labor outside the home. Official WWII propaganda and commercial advertising ignored the invisible working women of United States. Forties media focused on the pert, cheery, white housewife, only too happy to serve her men and her country "for the duration." How political and economic forces perpetuate traditional bourgeois values through social relationss and culture is an important analytical goal for radical films. ROSIE THE RIVETER takes on this task for working women in the WWII period.
However, ROSIE THE RIVETER does not always adequately distinguish the differences among women who became wartime Rosies. In my research on women who went into defense and heavy industry during WWII, I found several different groups entered the labor force. Some women came from traditional AFL craft union families and entered the industrial labor force "for the duration," while assuming they would return to traditional housewife status at the war's end. These women accepted the AFL's long-held position that the working man should earn enough to to be able to keep his wife at home, and they saw the war as a temporary displacement. Another group of women came from the middle class and tended to get into war work from a spirit of adventure, discontent with their situation, and desire for change.
In contrast, others were working class women who moved into industrial jobs from years of experience in other working class jobs such as waitress and textile mill hand. For them, higher pay and union protections were primary motivations. And other working class women came to war work from different strata; they had been at home before and were new to industrial work. Yet others were the wives and daughters of industrial workers with a strong sense of unionism and roots in the communities surrounding the plants, mills and shipyards.
For the women in ROSIE THE RIVETER, war production work was a move up in the labor force, not a temporary step out of the home. They were already responsible for a major share of their family's income. In defense work they could earn more in one day than they had ever earned in a week. Defense work was an opportunity that challenged the traditional sexual division of both education and labor that prepared women for menial work. Instead, women learned skilled mechanical and technical work, earned high wages, enjoyed job mobility, and worked "union." Women in basic industry were often entering companies with young active locals of the new national unions of the C.I.O., created in the militant struggles of workers in the depths of the 1930s Depression. As these women knew too well, women's lot in the U.S. capitalist economy was, typically, to work in low-paying, low-skilled, dead-end, "feminized" and non-unionized jobs. For black women the situation had been the worst, as racism combined with sexism in the hiring patterns of corporate employers to place them in the dirtiest, meanest, and lowest paying jobs, whether in the service sector (servants, waitresses, laundresses) or in factory work. War work was a challenge and an opportunity.
Official media stressed the temporary aberration of women from the norm of the housewife, who would be only too happy to return home to fulltime housewifery and mothering after the war. The MARCH OF TIME heralded the "hidden army" of housewives eager to do their patriotic duty as "kitchen mechanics," giving up their irons for welding torches and skirts for overalls. Commercials rushed to reassure the hardworking women that they were still feminine after all, especially if they used the right soap, hand cream, and perfume for their dates after work. A popular song like "Minnie's in the Money" captured the women's enthusiasm for their greater financial independence, especially after the hard times of the Depression, as well as their vital role as consumer in the economy.
Yet for the women in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER — Wanita Allen, Lynn Child, Gladys Becker, Lola Weixel, Margaret Wright — the war work was the beginning of their stories. The mass demobilization of women out of basic and defense industry as the war was nearing an end came as a rude shock. Nationally, the women had done their jobs well by all accounts, whether by company, government, or union measurement and reports. Nearly three-quarters of all women interviewed, in government, union and public interest surveys, wanted to retain their wartime jobs.(1) The women in the film still had major responsibility for providing for family income, and they needed to work. "There was a lot of money around, but it wasn't in our pockets," said one woman. They knew that government wage and price controls have kept wages a lot further down than prices. While some women were kept on in their wartime jobs and others fought and won their right to stay, most were demoted into the feminized sectors of the economy, back to "women's work." After four years of welding and steady attendance at after-work classes, Gladys could find no company willing to hire her as a welder. She became a cook in a school cafeteria for the rest of her working life. No factory in Brooklyn would hire Lola to do her welding that had helped win the war. Her dream was "to make a beautiful ornamental gate. Was that so much to want?"
Another important contribution to our understanding of the actual lives of women that ROSIE THE RIVETER makes is to show how the war work politicized women, making them more conscious about the dynamics of power in United States, be it between the sexes, the races, or social classes. Crossing the traditional sex barrier in the workforce sharpened women's understanding of how the sexual division of labor pitted men against women and created hardship and false ideas in people's lives. As Lola comments, "Men, had been sold a bill of goods — that the skills were, so hard to learn, that, in fact, could be quickly learned." Yet in the home, traditions persisted with less interruption. As Lola herself says, "I'd go home and cook and clean and do the laundry while my brother lay on the couch. We didn't question it so much then. But I was angry about it for years."
In what is for many viewers the dramatic peak the film, Lynn Child recalled an instance of racial discrimination. Working as the only woman and the only black on a welding crew in a ship's hold, she witnessed a 19-year-old white officer attack a Filipino worker, kicking him repeatedly and shouting racist insults. She swung around threatening the officer with the full flame of her blowtorch if he did not stop his attack. He stopped. Lynn was summoned to the main office. Braced for censure, she was surprised to see her entire crew behind her, to hear the commanding officer fumble with questions probing the incident, and to see the young officer cry. When the supervisor accused her of being a communist, she said that if that's what communists stood for, "Then I'm the biggest communist in the whole world." The story is dramatic, but it also begs the question of the actual leftist political affiliations and sympathies of the Rosies.
Not all unions treated the women workers alike. In some, like the United Auto Workers, United Electrical Workers and the United Steel Workers of America, women were more active both as union stewards and officers and as rank-and-filers pressing sex and race discrimination grievances. Lola explains,
The film suggests that in the manipulation of public images of wartime women, the government, employers and media were pushing hard the traditional view of Woman as Housewife to suppress the runaway implications of women doing men's work so successfully, with the pride and camaraderie that wartime working conditions engendered. If women could master mechanics, blowtorches, and blueprints, what couldn't they master? If women were doing so well with 12 million men away, would they be willing to accept so readily their traditional inferior places — at home, at work, in society?
It is at this point that the film leaves the audience hungry for more. We meet the five women. They are magnificent. We warm to them, care about them, are proud of them, and we sympathize with them. But neither they nor we are allowed to be angry at the forces responsible for their situation, or encouraged to take steps together to deal with the conflicts. We are isolated as viewers from them as subjects, as they are from each other. This is because the film portrays them as five individual women, unrelated in conscious and collective ways to other workers.
The visuals of the interviews tend to freeze the women in single images — Lola against old brick factories in New York, Lynn in a shipyard, Margaret out her kitchen window looking onto a massive Detroit plant, Gladys deep in an armchair in her house, and Wanita at her desk in the community social service agency where she now works. Visually the women are pinned, alone and in a static situation. They are abstracted from the dynamics of their present lives, as the film creates few bridges from their wartime experience to the present. We see that Gladys Becker worked in a cafeteria for the rest of her working life. We sense the disappointments and inadequacies of that situation, but how did she deal with it? Did these women ever join unions again? How did they relate to the civil rights and black liberation movements? How did they view the women's movement?
In this way, ROSIE THE RIVETER is not really about the dynamics of history. The film is polite. It avoids the nitty gritty of the contradictions of capitalism and patriotism, the basic forces which have steadily persisted and shaped U.S. politics throughout the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and, now, as reactionary militarism builds a death machine with people's lives. The film does not name the reasons for the women's unusual opportunity WWII as the massive boon to U.S. capitalism, the drive for war profits, the alliance of corporate power and the state, FDR's switch from Dr. New Deal to Dr. Win the War. The film does not probe the contradictions of wartime work for the unions and the workers — the no-strike agreement in return for the maintenance-of-membership contract clause; the loss of overtime pay; the Communist Party's uncritical position toward corporate profits and state policies; the strong wildcat strike movement. ROSIE THE RIVETER does not explore the effects of the women's wartime work experience, which persisted in spite of the retraction of opportunity — women's relations with men in the postwar readjustment; changing family life; involvement in community organizations, unions, or the civil rights movement.
THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER uses the style of several other feminist films of the 1970s. It has interviews with individuals intercut with archival footage over contemporary music and voice, as in UNION MAIDS by Julia Reichert, Jim Klein, and Miles Mogelescu, and BABIES AND BANNERS by Lynn Goldfarb, Lorraine Gray, and Anne Golden. Both of those films make a stronger case for the collective actions of women, grounding the individuals firmly in a union context. Connie Field emphasized, instead, five individual women, balanced well for racial differences and backgrounds (although the presence of a Latina woman would have broadened the impact of the film). She relies on their strength of character, insight, and story-telling ability, in counterpoint to the official "stories," to involve us in the central argument about the unjust manipulation of women.
It is always a danger for feminist art or politics to focus exclusively on women's issues and not to "greet the world," as it is a danger to personalize history solely in individual lives. Unless women are shown as participants in the social and political struggles in the community, workplace, or home, then, by implication, they are powerless to affect their lives. Within Field's chosen structure of the interview versus propaganda counterpoint, the film could have probed further the social context of women's lives. The film could have lessened their isolation by probing more into the women's shop floor cooperation at work, union activity, and their political thinking. More period footage of unions could have supplemented the interviews. Otherwise, women appear as the victims of history, manipulated by official propaganda, left with nostalgia for golden moments in the past, but unable to take common action to shape their lives.
In fact, research will probably show that WWII production work had an important role in changing many women's perceptions of themselves, their wishes and dreams, their aspirations for themselves and their families, their acceptance of "tradition" and a greater willingness to speak out, joining social organizations and political movements.(2) THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER is a dynamic and informative film about the real lives of working women in United States. It points us in a direction for making more films that strip away the veils of tradition and authority to show the social processes at work in people's lives by which we can and do reshape society.
1. Sheila Tobias and Lisa Anderson, "What Really Happened to Rosie the Riveter?", 1, no 12 (June 1973) 92-97.
2. For indications of this see Gerda Lerner, Black Women in White America: A Documentary History (New York: Vintage Books, 1973). My own findings along this line appear in Sue Davenport, "A Job in the Mills: Women Workers in Steel Production in the Chicago Area During World War II," unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1981.