Throughout my years of working as a welder, it was very rare for me to encounter other women in the field or another shop. I have strived to teach other girls and women in my life to use plasma torches, put on their coveralls, and learn of the infinite possibilities of welding and fabricating. I love teaching these women and girls to defy gender roles and try all kinds of different artistic and industrial endeavours. I found that knowing the history of something can really aid in teaching others the nature of the job (an idea encouraged by my historian daughter). I’ve always wanted to know more about the history of women in the welding industry and thought I should share the knowledge I have acquired over the years.
Whenever I would begin researching women in the welding industry, I would run into a well-known American image. At every turn, I kept running into an iconic woman in tight blue coveralls and a red bandanna on her head.
My reading led me to learn more about the early 40’s and the recruitment of women to work in factories to help keep up with the drastically increasing demand for industrial supplies and to boost the economy while the male workers were sent out to fight in the war. It was interesting to learn about the different women’s stories and how each one was affected by having the opportunity to work in a male dominated industry. What struck me the most is how the propaganda from the American government shifted its track dramatically between 1941 and 1945 and began targeting women more directly.
In 1942, there were songs, radio ads and posters everywhere encouraging homemakers to get employment in the weapons industry or steel mills. Potential employers were telling women things like: ”If you can operate an electric mixer, you will have no problem using a power drill.” So many women answered the call to go help in the war effort and put some coveralls on and started operating acetylene torches, power drills, welders and riveters.
And there she was again. Rosie. Yes, that one. The one with the yellow background and the muscles that could have never operated a pneumatic riveter. The secretary looking woman with her pencil eyebrows and a face that could have been anyone’s. I wanted to know if she was real. Was she a real woman that had walked the Earth or just a representation of a girl that was a homemaker the day before this portrait was painted? Was Rosie only a tool to encourage women to leave the kids at home and get dirty?
Well, I must say that what I found out was both surprising and unexpected.
What I found is that Rosie the Riveter was first and foremost a song.
It is such a catchy tune. I can see how Rosie was so easily recognizable as a role model.
So when she first appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in May 1943, her true fame began.
This is where Rosie becomes interesting to me. Was Rosie a real person? In short, no. Rockwell’s model for this painting was his next door neighbour. She was a telephone operator or something like that. Because The magazine had a weekly readership of 3 million copies, this image became quite popular and was used in campaigns by the US government as well.
Rosie came in different styles, doing different jobs, and became a staple of the propaganda encouraging women to do their part in the war effort. She was a symbol of women entering the industrial workplace, but also was meant to show women that they could affect and help the war in any way. In fact, the image of Rosie and all the propaganda targeted towards women at that time led to a 15% increase of women in industry in the later years of the war.
Even though, as the war came to an end, most (if not all) women receded back to the home and gave their jobs back to the men who once held them, the impact this job shift had can be seen years later. The image of Rosie re-surged in subsequent years following waves of feminism and times of political protest. For example, during the Vietnam War protests beginning in the 1960s, she was risen to a level of popularity she had not even reached during the Second World War. She became the icon we know her as today and symbolized the unique strength of women during the second wave of feminism in Western countries.
I have found that women in welding have a very sparse history and a sometimes stereotyped one (I think of the impact of the movie Flashdance in this instance), but the impact of wartime efforts during the 40s has impacted women of all walks of life in some way. Rosie, a fictional welder, has become a symbol of feminism and the strength of women. She teaches me that women can enter any male dominated industry and do the same (if not a better) job. She reminds me that only people’s prejudices prevent women from entering industrial workplaces and that I have the power to teach other girls and women that they need only accept others and believe in the strength and power they hold.