Several American companies already had contracts with the government to produce war equipment for the Allies from 1939, and when the United States entered the war in 1942 war production had to increase even further in a short amount of time. Auto-mobile factories were converted to build air-planes, shipyards were expanded, and new factories were built. These facilities needed workers, and as men were leaving for service, women were needed.
Now not only were minority and lower-class women working, as they had always done, but now white middle-class women were asked to step up. Only for the duration of the war of course. During the Depression and before the war, most people were against women working because they saw it as women taking jobs from unemployed men. So now the government had to convince women that working outside the home was necessary – hence another propaganda campaign – to sell the importance of the war effort and to lure women into working.
These wonderful photos from the Library of Congress on Flickr were also part of that campaign.
“Mrs. Doris Duke, who is 26 and a mother of one child, Corpus Christi, Texas. Mrs. Duke is a civil service worker in the Assembly and Repair dept. at the Navy Air Base. he she is seem reconditioning spark plugs.”
“Answering the nation’s need for womanpower, Mrs. Virginia Davis made arrangement for the care of her two children during the day and joined her husband at work in the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas. Both are employed under Civil Service in the Assembly and repair department. Mrs. Davis’ training will enable her to take the place of her husband should he be called by the armed service”
“Mrs. Virginia Davis, a riveter in the assembly and repair department of the Naval air base, supervises Chas. Potter, a NYA trainee from Michigan, Corpus Christi, Texas. After eight weeks of training he will go into civil service. Should he be inducted or enlist in the armed service, he will be valuable to mechanized units of the Army or Navy.”
“Oyida Peaks riveting as part of her NYA training to become a mechanic in the Assembly and Repair Department at the Naval Air Base, Corpus Christi, Texas.”
The most popular and well know propaganda image for war time working women is probably ‘Rosie the Riveter’ – first used in 1942 in a song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and a national hit. The song portrays “Rosie” as a tireless assembly line worker, who is doing her part to help the American war effort.
Here is a real-life “Rosie the Riveter” operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, Tennessee, working on an A-31 Vengeance dive bomber.
In 1942, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller was hired by the Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee to create a series of posters for the war effort -one of these posters became the famous “We Can Do It!” image.
This poster was designed as a morale booster rather than a recruitment poster, and when it was rediscovered in the 1980’s it became associated with feminism, and often mistakenly called “Rosie The Riveter.”
On Memorial Day, May 29, 1943 Norman Rockwell’s image of “Rosie the Riveter” featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post – a strong woman taking her lunch break with a rivet gun on her lap and beneath her Penny loafer a copy of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf.
If you look closely you an see that her lunch pail reads “Rosie”, and the public quickly recognized this to be “Rosie the Riveter” from the earlier song. Rockwell’s model was 19-year-old Mary Doyle, a telephone operator near where Rockwell lived in Vermont, not a riveter, but the image was so popular that the magazine loaned it to the U.S. Treasury Department for the duration of the war, for use in war bond drives.
If you can find a copy, the 1984 movie ‘Swing Shift‘ with Goldie Hawn gives a great insight into these working women.