Rosie The Riveter Remembers

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DURING THE FIRST three years of World War II, five million women covered their hair, put on “slacks,” and at the government’s urging went to work in defense plants. They did every kind of job, but the largest single need was for riveters. In song, story, and film, the female patriot, “Rosie the Riveter,” was born. Many of the new recruits had worked in service trades—as maids, cooks, or waitresses. Many more had never worked at any paying job. Practically none of them had ever made as much money. How they felt about resentful male co-workers, race and sex prejudice, and their own new self confidence is revealed in these interviews with ex-defense workers.

 

WINONA ESPINOSA: RIVETER AND BUS DRIVER

IN JULY 1942 I left Grand Junction, Colorado, where I grew up, and came to San Diego with my brother-in-law and my sister. I was nineteen and my boyfriend had joined the Army and was in Washington State. In my mind San Diego sounded closer to Washington than Colorado, and I thought that would make it easier for us to see each other. I also wanted to do something to help the country get the war over with and I knew there were a lot of defense jobs in San Diego.

I applied for a job at Rohr Aircraft, and they sent me to a six-week training school. You learned how to use an electric drill, how to do precision drilling, how to rivet. I hadn’t seen anything like a rivet gun or an electric drill motor before except in Buck Rogers funny books. That’s the way they looked to me. But I was an eager learner, and I soon became an outstanding riveter.

At Rohr I worked riveting the boom doors on P-38s. They were big, long, huge doors that had three or four thicknesses of skins, and you had to rivet those skins together. Everything had to be precise. It all had to pass inspection. Each rivet had to be countersunk by hand, so you had to be very good.

I found the work very challenging but I hated the dress. We had to wear ugly-looking hairnets that made the girls look awful. The female guards were very strict about them too. Maybe you’d try to leave your bangs sticking out, but they’d come and make you stick them back in. You looked just like a skinhead, very unfeminine. Then you had to wear pants—we called them slacks in those days—and you never wore them prior to the war. Finally, all the women had to wear those ugly scarves. They issued them so they were all the same. You couldn’t wear a colorful scarf or bandanna.

I worked at Rohr for almost a year, then, when I got married and pregnant, I went back to Grand Junction for a while.

When I came back, I went to work for the San Diego Transit driving buses and streetcars. I just saw a sign on a bus downtown one day that said, “I need you,” and I went and applied. I hadn’t even been driving very long. I only learned to drive a car after I got to San Diego, and I didn’t know anything about driving a big vehicle like that. But the war really created opportunities for women. It was the first time we got a chance to show that we could do a lot of things that only men had done before.

The transit company had a three-month school. They had classroom lessons and training in the field. You had to learn the automotive aspects of the bus so that if it broke down you could call in to tell the mechanic what was wrong so he could come and fix it. You also had to learn all the bus routes.

I drove buses and streetcars for about two and a half years. In fact I was driving a bus the day the war ended. I let everybody ride my bus free that day.

INEZ SAUER: CHIEF CLERK, TOOLROOM

I WAS THIRTY-ONE when the war started and I had never worked in my life before. I had a six-year-old daughter and two boys, twelve and thirteen. We were living in Norwalk, Ohio, in a huge home in which we could fit about two hundred people playing bridge, and once in a while we filled it.

I remember my first husband saying to me, “You’ve lived through a depression and you weren’t even aware that it was here.” It was true. I knew that people were without work and that lots of people were having a hard time, but it never seemed to affect us or our friends. They were all the same ilk—all college people and all golfing and bridge-playing companions. I suppose you’d call it a life of ease. We always kept a live-in maid, and we never had to go without anything. Before the war my life was bridge and golf and clubs and children. One group I belonged to was a children’s improvement group. I sat one night at the meeting and looked around at the group of women—there must have been thirty of us sitting there—and each one of us had maids, and our children were all at home with the maids. We were discussing how to improve our children, and they would have been far better off if we’d been home taking care of them.

When the war broke out, my husband’s rubber-matting business in Ohio had to close due to the war restrictions on rubber. We also lost our live-in maid, and I could see there was no way I could possibly live the way I was accustomed to doing. So I took my children home to my parents in Seattle.