Last Saturday, I had the astonishing good fortune to meet Betty Soskin, one of the original “Rosie the Riveters,” women who took on “men’s work” in the nation’s factories and shipyards during World War II. At 95, Betty is America’s oldest park ranger, and she takes pride in sharing her story, giving frequent talks at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Those talks are nothing short of … OK, I’ll say it: riveting.
It didn’t take her long to convince me that just about everything I “knew” about Rosie the Riveter was a myth. And that the truth is far more interesting.
After her talk (which I’ll be getting back to in just a moment) I went home and looked up Rosie’s origins. It all began with a song released in 1942. The snappy tune and distinctive machine-like riff — “Rosie, brrrrrrrr, the Riveter” — made it an instant hit.
So who was Rosie? The face the public knew best belonged to Rose Will Monroe, a riveter at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who starred in a promotional film about the home front. But for most of us, the face of Rosie will forever be the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster. I had always vaguely assumed this poster was thumb-tacked to the wall of every US recruitment office and welding station during the war years. Not so! The poster was privately printed by Westinghouse Electric as part of a series designed to boost productivity and discourage labor unrest. It was displayed in their factories for a mere two weeks in February, 1943.
After that, the poster languished in obscurity until 1982, when it appeared in a Washington Post article on patriotic art and was instantly embraced by the feminist movement as a symbol of empowerment. Which is ironic considering the “Rosies” made half as much as men doing the same job. Less if you weren't white.
Betty discussed none of this in her presentation. Her experience as an African American worker was radically different from the media’s Rosie image.
“That was a white woman’s story,” she said. “I was a twenty-year-old clerk working in a Jim Crow segregated union hall.” The popular images of happy, mixed-race work crews were, she said, far from the truth, especially at the beginning. Overt prejudice and discrimination were rampant, prompting African Americans to advocate for the Double V — victory for democracy at home and abroad — and inspiring poet Langston Hughes to write, “How long I got to fight / BOTH HITLER AND JIM CROW?”
Integration was the last thing on the mind of Henry Kaiser, the industrialist who created the Richmond Shipyards where Betty worked. He was so nautically inexperienced that he referred to a ship's bow as “the pointy end,” but he figured he could build Liberty ships faster than anyone else using Henry Ford’s assembly line methods — if he could get enough labor. “Henry Kaiser just wanted hands,” Betty recalled. “He didn't care what color they were or who they were attached to.” His recruiters headed south, hiring white farmers impoverished by the Dust Bowl and blacks thrown out of work by newly mechanized cotton farms. Some 98,000 black and white Southerners arrived in Richmond, bringing with them deep-seated racial friction.
“And because they’re all living under the threat of fascist world domination,” Betty explained, “there’s no time to take on a broken social system. No time to do anything except take on the mission of their leader, which is pure and simple: build ships faster than the enemy can sink ‘em. And together they completed 747 ships in 3 years and 8 months. They helped to turn the course of the war around by out-producing the enemy. And in the process, they accelerated the rate of social change, so that to this day it still radiates out of the Bay Area into the rest of the nation. It’s where the visionaries come to find constituents for their wildest dreams. Because of what happened right here. That’s rather amazing.”
Betty grew up around her great grandmother, a former slave, and became the first person in her family to hold a white-collar job. She’s outlived two husbands, one of whom was her partner in a recording company specializing in gospel music, the other a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. After raising four kids, she worked as a field representative for two California State Assemblywomen. I was delighted to discover her autobiography is due out in the fall — and yes, I will be sure to let you all know when it’s published!
After her talk, I asked Betty what she thought about our country’s future. “We are in a time of chaos,” she told me. “We’ve been getting those since — oh, about 1776. We’re like a spiral that keeps going around and touching the same places again and again. In times of chaos, we touch the reset button on democracy. Right now we are re-defining what democracy is. Again. Only today, there are more of us who have a voice in determining how we are going to change as a nation.”
And that’s about the most hopeful and comforting perspective I’ve heard in a while. Thanks, Betty!
Would you like to know more?
Watch a tape of Betty's talk here.
Learn more about the Rosie the Riveter museum/park here.
8/4/2017 02:58:26 am
Fabulous article with great visuals. Thank you, Karen! I am going to share this with a certain women writers' group you may know.
8/4/2017 04:39:03 pm
Thanks, Alicia. A friend told me about Betty and suggested I do a post on her; I was absolutely blown away by her story! What an amazing life, and so generous of her to share it the way she does. A real inspiration.
8/4/2017 03:00:53 am
8/4/2017 04:43:44 pm
OMG, Chris, I can't believe I made such a blooper. I was reading a book about Eisenhower at the time, and I guess I conflated it with my caption writing. Of course that's Eleanor Roosevelt; she's one of my heroines and so recognizable. Thanks for the heads up! I have fixed the caption.
8/4/2017 05:22:54 pm
Betty Soskin is a heroine on many levels. Thank you, Karen, for a great blog not only about women's rights but about African-American rights. Can't believe we're STILL working for everyone's rights.
8/5/2017 04:38:35 pm
I can't believe it either, Nancy! If I'd saved my protest posters from the sixties they'd be just as apt today. But as Betty pointed out, for the great-granddaughter of a slave to sit on the podium during the inauguration of a black American president means we have made progress. And now we all realize that it's up to all of us to keep moving forward so the pendulum doesn't swing back.
8/4/2017 05:58:57 pm
Loved the informative and interesting article! I am sending it to my 26 year-old son, (who actually now lives near your Bay home,) so it will be a short trip for him to visit.
8/5/2017 05:23:20 pm
Your son will love it, Dawn! He'll want to check the schedule, as Betty doesn't give talks there every day. There are other Rosies who share their stories as well, and I hear they're great too, although I can't believe anyone could top Betty's presentation.
8/4/2017 07:57:02 pm
I was born in 1944, so I missed WWII, but much later (1967 -1969) I worked on a converted "Liberty" Ship . . . . They were a nice ride! Great Story!!
8/5/2017 06:07:05 pm
I was lucky enough to sail on the Liberty ship SS Jeremiah O'Brien a few years ago, and you're right, Duane, it was a great ride. Amazing when you consider how fast they were built! It used to take cruises around SF Bay with Andrews-Sisters style bands and docents who told amazing WWII stories. Sadly, that ship is being mothballed soon, leaving only one Liberty ship, the SS John W. Brown, still functioning, a museum and cruise ship in Baltimore Harbor. We are so lucky to have the Liberty ship experience!
8/8/2017 11:20:12 pm
When the ship I was on was decommissioned they used it as target practice. Well, our boys in the Air Force/Navy have to practice shooting at something.
8/7/2017 07:10:05 am
This is (to keep up the theme) just riveting, Karen. Such a solid and beautiful reminder of all the people who've made just this one story into a national myth and all the people who have put muscle into our community and national life. And I love her remarks about our democracy. As you say, one of the most hopeful things I've heard in a long tine--and a long, wise perspective.
8/7/2017 04:39:26 pm
I'm often sorry when a favorite myth gets debunked, but finding out the truth about Rosie — and Betty — was so much richer and more inspiring than I ever expected. Betty's perspective does provide hope, and sitting with a crowd hanging onto every every word she spoke was a fine reminder of the tremendous power of storytelling — something that's especially important for us, as writers, Tobey!
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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