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Rosie The Riveter Remembers
For millions of women, consciousness raising didn’t start in the 1960s. It started when they helped win World War II.
February/March 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 2
The Seattle papers were full of ads for women workers needed to help the war effort. “Do your part, free a man for service.” Being a D.A.R., I really wanted to help the war effort. I could have worked for the Red Cross and rolled bandages, but I wanted to do something that I thought was really vital. Building bombers was, so I answered an ad for Boeing.
My mother was horrified. She said no one in our family had ever worked in a factory. “You don’t know what kind of people you’re going to be associated with.” My father was horrified too, no matter how I tried to impress on him that this was a war effort on my part. He said, “You’ll never get along with the people you’ll meet there.” My husband thought it was utterly ridiculous. I had never worked. I didn’t know how to handle money, as he put it. I was nineteen when I was married. My husband was ten years older, and he always made me feel like a child, so he didn’t think I would last very long at the job, but he was wrong.
They started me as a clerk in this huge toolroom. I had never handled a tool in my life outside of a hammer. Some man came in and asked for a bastard file. I said to him, “If you don’t control your language, you won’t get any service here.” I went to my supervisor and said, “You’ll have to correct this man. I won’t tolerate that kind of language.” He laughed and laughed and said, “Don’t you know what a bastard file is? It’s the name of a very coarse file.” He went over and took one out and showed me.
So I said to him, “If I’m going to be part of this organization, I must have some books, something that shows me how I can learn to do what I’m supposed to do.” This was an unheard-of request. It went through channels, and they finally brought me some large, classified material that showed all the tools and machinery needed to build the B-17s. So gradually I educated myself about the various tools and their uses, and I was allowed to go out and roam around the machine area and become acquainted with what they were doing. The results showed on my paycheck. Eventually I became chief clerk of the toolroom. I think I was the first woman chief clerk they had.
The first yeari I worked seven days a week. We didn’t have any time off. They did allow us Christmas off, but Thanksgiving we had to work. That was a hard thing to do. The children didn’t understand. My mother and father didn’t understand, but I worked. I think that put a little iron in my spine too. I did something that was against my grain, but I did it, and I’m glad.
Since I was the chief clerk, they gave me the privilege of coming to work a half-hour early in the morning and staying over thirty to forty minutes at night. Because I was working late one night I had a chance to see President Roosevelt. They said he was coming in on the swing shift, after four o’clock, so I waited to see him. They cleared out all the aisles of the main plant, and he went through in a big, open limousine. He smiled and he had his long cigarette holder, and he was very, very pleasant. “Hello there, how are you? Keep up the war effort. Oh, you women are doing a wonderful job.” We were all thrilled to think the President could take time out of the war effort to visit us factory workers. It gave us a lift, and I think we worked harder.
Boeing was a real education for me. It taught me a different way of life. I had never been around uneducated people before, people that worked with their hands. I was prudish and had never been with people that used coarse language. Since I hadn’t worked before, I didn’t know there was such a thing as the typical male ego. My contact with my first supervisor was one of animosity, in which he stated, “The happiest day of my life will be when I say goodbye to each one of you women as I usher you out the front door.” I didn’t understand that kind of resentment, but it was prevalent throughout the plant. Many of the men felt that no woman could come in and run a lathe, but they did. I learned that just because you’re a woman and have never worked is no reason you can’t learn. The job really broadened me. I had led a very sheltered life. I had had no contact with Negroes except as maids or gardeners. My mother was a Virginian, and we were brought up to think that colored people were not on the same economic or social level. I learned differently at Boeing. I learned that because a girl is a Negro she’s not necessarily a maid, and because a man is a Negro doesn’t mean that all he can do is dig. In fact, I found that some of the black people I got to know there were very superior—and certainly equal to me—equal to anyone I ever knew.
My mother warned me when I took the job that I’d never go back to being a housewife. She was right.
Before I worked at Boeing I also had had no exposure to unions. After I was there awhile, I joined the machinists union. We had a contract dispute, and we had a one-day walkout to show Boeing our strength. We went on this march through the financial district in downtown Seattle.