A lot of emphasis was placed on the #MeToo movement a few years back. Thanks to those who came forward with their stories, awareness of the sexual harassment that women face rose in prominence. Voices that previously went unheard or were pushed aside were suddenly important enough to draw the attention of politicians everywhere. Going way back in time, the suffragette movement argued for equal rights for women, especially for the right to vote. Many years later the women’s liberation movement argued for equal treatment in terms of career and education. The time period that impacted me the most took place during WWII when women were called to enlist. So many working-age men actively serving in the military, which left necessary jobs understaffed. In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted a poster to entice women to leave homes in order to help the United States win the war. While the painting might have been the first call for help, it was J. Howard Miller’s depiction of Rosie Riveter, wearing a red bandana and flexing her biceps accompanied by the words We Can do It! that inspired women to take on the traditionally male jobs of welding, riveting and construction.Women entered these fields in unprecedented numbers. According to history.com, more than 310,000 women worked in the aircraft industry and a comparable amount were in the munitions industry. They were needed to fill the ranks, but they encountered many problems, such as men who refused to work side-by-side with women until ordered to do so. A sterling example of the impact of these Rosies is in Richmond, California, at the site of the former Kaiser Shipyards. Rosies helped to produce 747 ships there in Richmond, more than any other shipyard in the United States. The women worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Over 90,000 employees assembled the ships, which were built in sections that were then lowered into place.Women came from all over the United States to learn welding, riveting and various construction skills. The city of Richmond grew from a population of 24,000 to over 100,000 in just a few years. Kaiser himself was a brilliant entrepreneur. He employed his own drafts people, many of them women, to replicate the mandatory designs for Liberty and Victory ships that moved soldiers and materials all over the world. In fact, large equipment such as jeeps were disassembled into segments and then crated. Once at the site, the equipment was rebuilt. In this way the holds could be crammed with materials.He understood that these women were doing the same jobs as men, with the same level of training and under the same working conditions. Because of this, Kaiser paid the women the same wage as the men. He also understood that many of the women had children that needed a place to stay while their mothers worked. To alleviate the problem, Kaiser offered Child Care Centers at their industrial sites run by highly skilled teachers. This was a novel idea, and unfortunately still would be considered such today. Another benefit was health care. Kaiser understood that Americans were dying in Home Front accidents. He also knew that only healthy workers could meet his grueling demands and construction needs. The nearest clinic to the shipyards couldn’t handle the explosion in population needing services. When a worker got injured on the job, many hours of valuable time were lost. To remedy the situation, Kaiser built a field hospital at the shipyard in 1942. He also encouraged prepaid medical care at fifty cents a week. Within two years more than 92% of Kaiser employees were enrolled in the plan, the first of its kind in the nation. There were skilled medical practitioners, a prepayment plan and substantial facilities all at a moderate rate. Another problem was housing. When new workers arrived, there were no suitable places to live. Many slept in the all-night movie theaters and a huge number shared what beds there were. Because there were three shifts to work, someone could be in the bed during the morning shift, someone in the afternoon, and a third at night. Today we would find this unacceptable. The Rosies are slowly dying, with limited recognition of their outstanding service. A push began to earn recognition at the federal level. One of the Rosies began a letter-writing campaign. Every year, beginning during the time of President Clinton, she wrote a letter asking for the government to commemorate the service these women gave to the country. After twelve years of writing, one of the letters arrived in Joe Biden’s mailbox while he was serving as Vice President. He arranged for several Rosies to come to the White House for a private tour. He greeted them with hugs and words that let the nation know how important their service was. During the visit, President Obama dropped in, a surprise for everyone.On a recent tour of the Richmond Museum, four of the Rosies shared their stories. They spoke of the call to serve, the desire to do something for their country. None of them had been employed before, so this was quite an adventure. Two of them became welders which meant overcoming the prejudice of the union that would not allow women to join. Without a union card, they could not work. Kaiser himself intervened and the rules changed.The welders learned to set down seams vertically, horizontally and overhead. Overhead was the most challenging physically. Another problem was that to get to the places where welding was needed, they crawled through eighteen-inch square holes dragging their equipment along. It was dark and hot, but they persevered.Another Rosie learned how to draft blueprints. She knew that if she missed something, an error in the design might occur, making it so that the ship might not be sea-worthy.Because there are so few Rosies left, we felt blessed to hear their stories.If you get a chance to visit the memorial, stop by.
Women Who Serve Their Country