The cold spring rain in Seattle was not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of Margaret Berry, 79, who approached a vintage B29 bomber she was helping restore with a riveting gun — and a mind full of memories.
"It was just like I had never been away from riveting," she said, delighting in the sound and feel of the gun and what it made her feel inside as she helped to restore the World War II bomber for the Seattle Museum of Flight. With a smile she said, "I always felt that I was a veteran just the same as the fellows who are serving."
But Berry was a veteran. During World War II, Americans knew her as "Rosie the Riveter," one of the millions of American women who answered the call of duty.
This weekend, the Women in Trades Association, a nonprofit labor group in Washington state, is honoring Berry and all of the other "Rosie the Riveters."
After the war began in 1941, millions of men left their factory jobs to enlist. The war industry needed millions of workers to take their place, and they turned to women.
"Women were indispensable," said historian Penny Colman, who wrote a book titled Rosie the Riveter. "Without their efforts in the factories America could never have won the war."
In 1942 and 1943, U.S. government propaganda encouraged women to leave the home and go to the factories to help the war effort. In one film shown over and over in theaters across America, a woman worker told moviegoers: "My husband's a prisoner of the Japs in the Philippines. If he'd had a few more of these shells out in Bataan, maybe he'd still be fighting."
Berry was working as a clerk in her parent's general store in 1942 when she was lured to work at the Boeing aircraft factory in Seattle to make bombers. "I just wanted to help," she said. "I wanted to be a part of it and help to end the war."
The Rosie name came from the song "Rosie the Riveter," which was commissioned by the government and industry in 1942 to entice women to go to work for the war industries. The name was given to all women war workers, whether they were riveters or welders or shipbuilders.
As the lyrics to the song said:
"All the day long whether rain or shine, She's working on the assembly line. She's making history working for victory, Rosie the Riveter."
Many Felt Factories Unsafe for Women
In the 1930s, factory jobs in America were jobs for men. Women were either clerks, homemakers or worked in someone else's home. "These were women who hadn't even worn pants before in their lives," said Colman. "We're talking about doing hot and dirty and dangerous work."
Not everyone liked the idea of women working in the factories. In the Chicago area, some factory owners turned down lucrative government defense contracts that would have required them to hire women.
The government propaganda films told them that it was war against America that was unpatriotic, and that women would be safe in factories. In one film, a woman in industry said: "Women can do a man's job for a man's wages and do it safely. She's safer in a factory than in her own home."
Neither point was true. The women who worked alongside men in defense factories were, on average, paid less money for the same work. And in the first 18 months of the war, more factory workers died in accidents and explosions — these were munitions plants — than servicemen died fighting at the front.
Colman said black women had it particularly bad. "Black women were paid less. They were also assigned to the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs."
When the war ended, many of the 18 million women were dismissed from their jobs. Returning soldiers needed work, and now women were told their place was in the home. Polls from the time showed more than 80 percent of women didn't want to leave their jobs, but they were pushed out.
Colman said the tragedy of this was that "generation after generation of men and women and boys and girls are duped into believing that women have to prove themselves one more time, one more time when women already have time and time again."
Berry is happy that the Washington Women in Trades Association is recognizing all the Rosie the Riveters. But she'd be happier still if Americans would remember what women like her did to help the nation win the second World War.