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On December 29, 1940, a year before the United States entered the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the United States to be an arsenal of democracy.
When the US did finally enter the war, they faced a serious problem. The population of men who would normally be called upon to work in the factories was now being sent off to war.
The solution to the problem proved to be incredibly simple.
Learn more about Rosie the Riveter and women on the homefront during World War II on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
If you look at the big picture, the primary thing that the United States brought to the table in World War II wasn’t soldiers, it was equipment.
At some point in the late 19th century, the United States surpassed the United Kingdom as the world’s largest economy.
As the country industrialized in the first several decades of the 20th century, it managed to avoid much of the devastation which afflicted Europe in the first world war.
When the second world war started, many of the industrialized nations of Europe either completely went offline or were severely restricted due to u-boat attacks on supply ships.
The United States began supplying the allies in 1939 and 1940, which is why FDR called America the “arsenal of democracy.”
The US had a massive advantage over every other belligerent country in the war.
For starters, the US was separated by two giant oceans from all the fighting and destruction taking place in Europe and Asia. This meant that they were protected from raids or strategic bombing attacks, which could target industrial centers.
Secondly, the US was a really big country with a large amount of land area.
Perhaps most important, the United States in the 1940s was self-sufficient in all the raw materials necessary for heavy industry. This includes iron, coal, oil, aluminum, timber, and food. Assuming you could put a naval blockade on the country, it would be pretty meaningless as they had everything they needed, especially if you include trade with Canada and Mexico.
Starting with the Lend-Lease Act in March of 1941, the United States, even though it wasn’t yet a belligerent in the war, dramatically increased the supplies and arms it sent to several countries, primarily the UK and the Soviet Union.
When the US entered the war later that year, everything suddenly changed.
The number of planes, tanks, ships, and everything else which was needed skyrocketed. Not only were they needed to support the American war effort, but also to supply the allies as well.
For example, the amount of Lend Lease equipment the US sent to the Soviets increased almost tenfold from 1941 to 1942 and was twenty times larger at its peak in 1944.
As American industry shifted from a peacetime economy to a wartime economy, they faced a serious problem.
More industrial output required more workers. However, most of the workforce in the 1940s, especially in heavy industry, were men. Men were now joining the military to go overseas and fight.
So, where were they going to get the necessary labor to build the tanks, ships, and planes required for the war effort?
The answer was sitting right in front of them: women.
The introduction of women into the workforce, especially in industrial jobs, wasn’t something that happened overnight.
There was cultural resistance to having women work at jobs that were traditionally held by men. Also, it took time for the war economy to ramp up. Not all men were enlisted into military service immediately
In 1940, there were 14.6 million women who comprised 29% of the American workforce. This was the workforce in what was basically the last year of the Great Depression.
In 1941, the percentage increased to 31%, with 16 million in the workforce. The United States didn’t enter the war until the end of the year, so this increase still didn’t represent the full war effort.
In 1942 as things began to ramp up, 3.5 million entered the workforce, raising the number to 19.4 million, representing 36% of the workforce.
In the first half of 1942, the number of jobs that were deemed “acceptable” for women went from 29% to 85%.
In 1943, the war effort was in full gear, and there were labor shortages all over the country. U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson began the “Get Women to Work” campaign. The purpose, as he stated, was to “fully utilize, immediately and effectively, the largest and potentially the finest single source of labor available today—the vast reserve of woman power.”
That year the number of women in civilian jobs hit 20.5 million, representing about 37% of the workforce.
It wasn’t just a matter of the number of women in the workforce, it was what they were doing.
The need for labor overwhelmed the resistance to women taking jobs that were traditionally reserved for me.
Women were becoming welders, sheet metal cutters, heavy machine operators, and of course, riveters.
Getting women to take these jobs did take some cajoling. The American War Manpower Campaign issued propaganda to get women to take these jobs. One of their promotional campaigns said, “If you’ve used an electric mixer in your kitchen, you can learn to run a drill press…”
In 1943, 65% of the workforce involved in the construction of aircraft were women.
While women in these manufacturing positions got most of the attention, this wasn’t where the major of women worked. Women took jobs across the board, everywhere there were positions available.
Women even filled by playing sports. The All-American Girls Baseball League was established in the Midwest, which was highlighted in the movie A League of Their Own.
While many of the women who took jobs were younger and unmarried, there were also plenty of women who had children.
Women would create childcare arrangements with their neighbors, so their kids were looked after while they were at work.
Women just didn’t take jobs in the civilian economy. There were 350,000 women who joined the military and served in various roles, including the Women Airforce Service Pilots, also known as WASPs.
The embodiment of the female industrial worker during the war was initially called “Wendy the Welder”.
Women who worked in civilian roles for the government became known as “government girls”.
However, in 1942, a song was written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb called “Rosie the Riveter”. There were several versions of the song which was recorded, but the version which really took off was the 1943 recording by a group known as the Four Vagabonds.
After that, Wendy the Welder was forgotten and Rosie the Riveter became the new face of working women during the war.
I should note that there was no actual Roise the Riveter. Rosie was sort of like GI Joe. It was just a generic name that embodied all the working women of the era.
That being said, just like Uncle Sam or Lady Liberty, there were personifications of Rosie the Riveter. Norman Rockwell painted an image of Rosie with her rivet gun and goggles which was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
The model for the image was a 19 year old Mary Louise Doyle from Vermont, who was a telephone operator, not a riveter.
Perhaps the most famous image which has become associated with Rosie was the 1943 poster created by J. Howard Miller called “We Can Do It”. It features the image of a women with her sleeve rolled up and her arm flexed.
Oddly enough, at the time, the image was not associated with Rosie the Riveter. Even though it is the image most associated with Rosie today, that association didn’t really occur until the 1980s when the poster was rediscovered.
The woman in the poster was based on a photo taken of Naomi Parker who worked on the aircraft assembly line at the Naval Air Station Alameda in California. She was 21 or 22 years old when the photo was taken. She passed away in 2018 at the age of 96.
In 1944, the percentage of women in the civilian workforce reached its wartime peak of 37%. A level that wouldn’t be seen again until the 1970s.
In 1945, things began winding down, and the percentage of women in the workforce dropped to 33%.
When the war ended, the government reversed course and began to discourage women from working so jobs would be available for soldiers as they returned from the war.
Even though female participation in the workforce returned to pre-war levels, not all the Rosies left the workforce. Some of them stayed on the job for years.
One woman, Elinor Otto, was hired as a riveter in 1942, to construct airplanes. She returned to industry in 1951 and remained on the job until she was laid of in 2014 at the age of 95.
At the time she retired, involuntarily, she was involved in the construction of every C-17 transport plane ever made.
As of the time of recording, she is still going strong at the age of 103, and there is a bar named after her in Long Beach, California.
Today, you can visit the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, located just outside of San Francisco at the former location of a shipyard for liberty ships.
The Second World War was the first time an industrial nation saw wide-scale participation of women in the workforce, especially in industrial and manufacturing jobs.
It wasn’t just a period of high participation of women in the workforce, but also the period which saw the largest number of ships and planes constructed in history.
World War II was won with weapons provided by the arsenal of democracy, and many of those weapons were built by the women known as Rosie the Riveter.