- Historic Sites
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
My mother happened to be down there seeing the president of the Seattle First National Bank at the time. Seeing this long stream of Boeing people, he interrupted her and said, “Mrs. Ely, they seem to be having a labor walkout. Let’s go out and see what’s going on.” So my mother and a number of the people from the bank walked outside to see what was happening. And we came down the middle of the street—I think there were probably five thousand of us. I saw my mother. I could recognize her—she was tall and stately—and I waved and said, “Hello, Mother.” That night when I got home, I thought she was never going to honor my name again. She said, “To think my daughter was marching in that labor demonstration. How could you do that to the family?” But I could see that it was a new, new world.
My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, “You will never want to go back to being a housewife.” At that time I didn’t think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did.
I had always been in a shell; I’d always been protected. But at Boeing I found a freedom and an independence I had never known. After the war I could never go back to playing bridge again, being a clubwoman and listening to a lot of inanities when I knew there were things you could use your mind for. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up.
When I was nineteen I fell in love with a boy from Oklahoma. George was also from a depressed area and joined the Navy to get ahead. He was stationed in California, and I decided to come and join him. I felt there would be more opportunity in California, and I was determined that I was going to have a different life.
I had twenty-five dollars when I left Oklahoma. I answered an ad in the paper looking for riders to California and paid twelve dollars for the trip. I arrived here with twelve dollars to my name and lived with friends until I could get work.
I got a job as a pastry cook at a restaurant in Whittier, a very exclusive place. I was making fifteen dollars (and board) a week and was very proud of myself. George and I were planning to marry. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked, and his ship was sent out to fight in the Pacific.
After he left I knew I had to make it on my own. I saw an ad in the paper announcing the opening of a school for vocational training in aircraft. I was looking for the opportunity to learn something else, and I wanted to earn more money. I worked during the day cooking and went to school at night studying bench mechanics and riveting, how to read blueprints and use different aircraft tools.
After about three months the instructor said, “There’s no use in you spending any more time here. You can go out and get a job.” He gave me my graduation slip, and I went down to San Diego to look around, because George’s mother lived there. I went to Convair, which was Consolidated Aircraft then, and they hired me.
I was one of the first women hired at Convair and I was determined that I wasn’t going to lose the job and be sent back to working as a pastry cook. Convair had a motto on their plant which said that anything short of right is wrong, and that stuck with me. I went to work in the riveting group in metal-bench assembly. The mechanics would bring us the job they had put together, and we would take the blueprints and rivet what they brought us.
They would always put the new people with another person, a “leadman.” The man I went to work for was really great. He saw my determination and he would give me hard jobs to do. The other girls would say, “Joplin, don’t give her that, I’ll do it.” But he would say, “I’m going to break her in right, I’m going to do it the hard way.” He told me later that he had made a mistake and been too easy with the other girls.
I tackled everything. I had a daring mother who was afraid of nothing: horses, farm implements, anything, so maybe I inherited a little bit ofthat from her. I remember my brother, who was in the Air Corps at the time, and his friends laughed at me one day thinking I couldn’t learn this mechanical stuff. I can still see them, but it only made me more determined. I think it probably hurt their pride a little bit that I was capable of doing this.
Pretty soon I was promoted to bench-mechanic work, which was detailed hand riveting. Then I was given a bench with nothing to do but repair what other people had ruined. I visited a man recently who’s seventy-four years old, and he said to my daughter, “All we had to do was foul up a job and take it to her and she’d fix it.”