Lyn Childs, one of the interviewees in Connie Field’s documentary The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, has explained more succinctly than anybody else I have come across the origins of Rosie.
When we first got into the war, the country wasn’t prepared. They needed all the heads they could get, and they drafted them all. And as the manpower in the country was getting pulled into the service, all of the industries were wide open. So they decided, ‘Well, we better let some of those blacks come in.’ Then after the source of men dried up, they began to let women come in. It wasn’t a struggle to do it, it was just plain necessity. The doors were opened.That is how in 1943 Ms Childs, an African-American woman, found employment as a welder in the San Francisco shipyard. As she goes on to explain
[w]e’d never had the opportunity to do that kind of work. Do you think that if you did domestic work all of your life, where you’d cleaned somebody’s toilets and did all the cooking for some lazy character who were sitting on top, and you finally get a chance where you can get a dignified job, you wouldn’t fly through the door?
However this is not the picture of the vast new contingent of female factory workers that was being presented through the media at the time. First of all, the women on the posters and in the newsreels – and who became collectively known as Rosie the Riveter from one of the songs that celebrated them – were unfailingly white. Secondly, and no less importantly, they hailed from the middle class. If they already had jobs at all, they would be as floor managers in a fashion store, not as waitresses or chambermaids, but mostly they were housewives or brides to be, first-time workers whom the propaganda reels urged to join the ‘invisible army’ as a temporary sacrifice, just like going to war was a sacrifice for the soldiers; not to get a better, more dignified job, much less gain long-term financial independence. Yet long before the image on the J. Howard Miller poster above and on the Norman Rockwell cover for The Saturday Evening Post were reclaimed by the women’s movement, many of them had developed a sense of themselves as belonging to a new generation of women: skilled workers who – in the words of another of Field’s informants, Lola Weixel – could contribute after the conflict to the reconstruction of the cities, ‘do all the good and beautiful things for America, because Fascism was destroyed’.
But America had different ideas, and just as quickly and meticulously as the image of virtuous Rosie was constructed, it was deconstructed. Suddenly the women in overalls depicted in the reels started being asked by the man off screen if they had plans to continue working after the war. ‘I should say not. When my husband comes back, I shall be busy at home,’ replied one. ‘My job belongs to some soldier. When he comes back, he can have it,’ said another. Women belonged in the home, and jobs didn’t belong to women. Suddenly too the children for whom the work recruitment trailers had promised largely non-existent childcare provisions became victims of neglect due to the selfish career pursuits of their mothers, and the very fabric of modern marriage and society had come under threat. It’s all rather neatly condensed in the following 100-second reel segment, which culminates in the staggering musings of Marynia F. Farnham, MD.
A formidable text to unpack, I think you’ll agree. But it’s not my intention to point and laugh at the crude propaganda, rather to argue that things in fact haven’t progressed much further. There is much still that is crude about contemporary ideas regarding women in the workplace, and the contradictions are just as glaring. Writes Nina Power:
When people talk about the 'feminization of labor', then, their discourse is often double-edged. The phrase is at once descriptive (work is generally more precarious and communication-based, as women's jobs tended to be in the past) and an expression of resentment ('women have stolen proper men's jobs! It's their fault - somehow - that we don't have any proper industry anymore!').
Nowhere is this tension, this simultaneous pull in two opposite directions more evident than in the figure of the working mother. While the message in the United States in the immediate post-War period was that such a creature could not by rights exist
Western societies have since become much more comfortable with extracting from women both the labour and the children, and without having to provide very much at all by way of provisions or compensation. We simply ask that they be both things at once – the feminine nuclear wife and the hard(nosed) worker, the tender mother and the ambitious career-seeker. Of course there is no inherent contradiction between any of those terms: what constitutes anti-progress is that this modern-day Rosie - just like her predecessor - is presented not as a possibility open to women but rather as a demand put on women.
‘juggling kids and career while standing on her head’
Enter SuperMom, the action figure. This brilliant creation from the team at Happy Worker ‘magically creates extra hours each day juggling kids, schedules, chores and career’. Her ‘eight accessories of mommy might’ include an interchangeable calm or frazzled head, a ‘super-long to do list’ and naturally a baby, whose mood can also be changed between ‘little angel’ or ‘mini monster’. Available in three different ethnicities (‘while each cultural version has unique mom and baby paint detailing, all share the same packaging with Caucasian pictures’), SuperMom
[navigates] jungles of toys and mountains of kiddie stuff, [...] prepares tasty-yet-healthy snacks, tames dust bunnies and banishes stubborn stains. With an invisible third arm and a never ending pursuit of work / life balance she can help with a school project and answer an all-important business call while wrist deep in dirty diapers.Oh, and by the way: she cannot sit down, which, as the makers quite appropriately point out, is actually a feature.
What’s happening here? Is this a humorous send-up, or is it in fact integral to the indoctrination of the modern woman? If the material that accompanies SuperMom doesn’t read like a piece of propaganda, if you think it’s much too light-hearted, firstly I’d respond that so was Rosie’s song, and so were many of the reels in which she starred, but I’d also suggest that what might have occurred is simply a rhetorical shift in the kinds of texts that we invest with constructing our social realities. We no longer model our behaviour based on the instructional videos issued by government agencies, by and large; but maybe we take our cues (also) from comic strips, action figures, glossy magazines, always feeling that we are subjects capable of evaluating autonomously the truth value of their statements, which is likely how the original audiences of those World War II newsreels felt about themselves. But ironic distancing is not the same as safeguarding one’s autonomous judgment, as standing outside of a text – if there was even such a place. So the problem remains of how to get past the feeling of self-satisfaction that comes from getting the joke; how to substitute the inexorable logic, the perfect interplay of signs and meanings (‘SuperMom’s mood is usually determined by her children’s’) with a gesture of defiance, or the call for some sort of action, as opposed to just another piece of analysis, another blog post for like-minded people to nod at.
I don’t know how to do that. Well, obviously! I tend – perhaps because of my topic of interest – to search my memory and the past for political projects, instead of looking forward to them, and I tell myself that there is a place for that kind of work. But at the same time I feel a growing sense of impatience, when I read, say, about SuperMom or watch the new ad for the Sienna SE. Impatience at myself, for wanting to deconstruct these texts, for almost physically needing to do it, and impatience at them, for being so perfectly maddeningly clever and wrong. And I seek solace in gestures, writings or images capable of pushing back. Today, it’s in the extraordinary clarity and strength of the women interviewed by Connie Field, so glorious even in defeat; in the energy of Nina Power’s book; and in the frescoes of the chapel of San Precario, a place where to pause and contemplate what work has become, what we have allowed it to become. And there I find a rather different image of the working mother.
Here too we find that tension, that literal pull in two opposite directions, but this time without without the illusion that those obligations can in fact be successfully mediated, or that the choice – your baby and your job – is a meaningful one if it’s not accompanied by profound changes in the way we do things, in work itself. And that’s a good way to begin to look forward: by starting again to formulate demands.
Connie Field's The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (which is also where the YouTube segment comes from) is now available on DVD through the link on the title - whereas Amazon will tell you it's out of print.
Nina Power. One Dimensional Woman. Winchester: 0 Books, 2009. The book was reviewed by Dougal here.
This just came to hand: Visualising the 100-hour week of the 1947 housewife, by the redoubtable Mr Ptak.
(And before somebody points it out, I'm aware that technically the J. Howard Miller poster at the top of the post is not of Rosie.)