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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
I loved working at Convair. I loved the challenge of getting dirty and getting into the work. I did one special riveting job, hand riveting that could not be done by machine. I worked on that job for three months, ten hours a day, six days a week, and slapped three-eighth- or three-quarter-inch rivets by hand that no one else would do. I didn’t have that kind of confidence as a kid growing up, because I didn’t have that opportunity. Convair was the first time in my life that I had the chance to prove that I could do something, and I did. They finally made me a group leader, although they didn’t pay me the wage that went with the job, because I was a woman.
Our department was a majority of women. Many of the women had no training at all, particularly the older women. We had women in our department who were ex-schoolteachers, -artists, -housewives, so when we could give them a job from the production line, the job would have to be set up for them. I’d sit them down and show them how to use the drill press, the size drill to use, the size of screws, the kind of rivets, whether it was an Army rivet or a Navy rivet—a Navy rivet was an icebox rivet, the Army rivet was not—and so on. Then I would go back and check to see if the riveting was okay, and if there were any bad rivets, they had to take them out. Most of the time I had to take them out myself. As a group leader that’s what I did, and I did it at the same time I was doing my job as a bench mechanic. There were four male group leaders and myself. Theoretically we should have been classified as group leaders and paid for that type of work, but we were not. I felt that was discrimination and that we were being used by the company and fought against it.
Shortly after I went to work at Convair I was chosen by the people in our work group to sit on the wagereview board. The company had automatic wage reviews, and when I first started, those were the only raises that we received. The women were lucky, though, if we got a five-cent-an-hour increase on a review. Some of the women got three cents, some of the women even got two cents, and some of the women were passed over. To us it seemed that the men’s pay automatically went up, and ours didn’t. I was fortunate enough to get raises later, even a ten-cent raise, and I actually had an assistant foreman come up to me and say, “Don’t say anything to the other girls about getting a raise.” I told him, “I don’t discuss my personal wages, but how about the other women who are deserving too?” So on the wage board I fought for the other women as much as I fought for myself. The highest-paid women at that time were making around $.80 an hour, but the men were probably making $1.15 to $1.50 an hour for identically the same work. In fact, there was a lot of feeling that the women were producing more work than the men on final assembly and on the bench because of their agility with their hands.
Some of the things we did change. For example, they were forced to classify you because of your work. And somewhere in the back of their minds they had the idea that they were not going to make a woman anything but a B-mechanic. As a B-mechanic you could only go to $1.00 an hour, and they were determined that no woman would ever become an A-mechanic or an A-riveter. But we really fought that and we proved to them by bringing them on the job that we were doing A-mechanic work and producing more than the men. So I got my A-mechanic classification and a raise to $1.15 an hour.
I also sat on the safety board the whole time I was at Convair, for the safety requirements they demanded of women were more unreasonable than what they demanded of men. In the beginning we had caps and uniforms we were supposed to wear, but the women rebelled at that. We felt that we could be safe and wear the clothes we wanted. Eventually the company did become a little more relaxed about dress, so we won some victories there too.
There was also a big difference between my salary and those in defense work. I was making something like twenty-two to twenty-four dollars a week in the drugstore. You could earn a much greater amount of money for your labor in defense plants. Also it interested me. I had a certain curiosity about meeting that kind of challenge, and here was an opportunity to do that, for there were more openings for women.