Rosie the Riveter Is More than a Hairdo

March 08, 2013

I sighed in exasperation when I did a YouTube search for “Rosie the Riveter” and found that the first through 50th entries on the site were video tutorials on how to get “Rosie the Riveter hair.” The sigh was, in part, elicited by the fact that I have never looked good in bandanas. But it was mostly because I was desperately searching for a documentary, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, and emphasizing hairdos seemed to be a poor tribute to the actual history. As AAUW celebrates the first week of Women’s History Month by recognizing the role of women in the U.S. military, I’m taking a look at the complex history behind one of the most famous images of American women during wartime.

Rosie the Riveter

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter is pretty standard fare in gender studies classrooms — if you can get a copy. Released in 1980, it tells the stories of five women who worked in factories for the war effort during World War II. For many people, the woman on the Westinghouse poster known as Rosie the Riveter is synonymous with American women in war. This is, in many respects, a great thing because it is seen as a forerunner to feminism, highlights the competency of women workers, and is symbolic of the United States’ remarkable war efforts and experience in WWII.

Yet, as with most things, the symbol signifies a more complex truth. The history of American women in WWII is much deeper and, at times, much less cheerful than our picture of the empowered Rosie. Only one-third of the women who joined factories and other domestic, war-related jobs were women who had never worked before, suggesting a longer and often unrecognized history of working women in the United States. This includes African American women workers, who were often paid less than their white counterparts. After the war, women who had advanced in the workplace and gained considerable technical skills were expected to return to their homes or to accept demotions or lower-paying jobs.

Aside from civilian life, WWII also heralded an unprecedented age of women’s involvement in the military, beginning with the Women’s Army Corps in 1942. In addition to serving as nurses, members of the WAC worked domestically and overseas flying airplanes, serving as air traffic controllers, and more.

A video hairdo tutorial may be helpful for Women’s History Month-themed parties, but it is documentary images — such as the Today Show’s recent segment on real-life Rosie the Riveters, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, or the more recent film The Invisible War, which is about sexual assault in the military — that are vitally important to see. These accounts should continually remind us of the complex and contested history of women in war in the United States.

This post was written by AAUW Media Relations Intern Emily Baxter.

By:   |   March 08, 2013

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