Rosie The Riveter Remembers

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So I went to two or three plants and took their test. And they all told me I had absolutely no mechanical ability. I said, “I don’t believe that.” So I went to another plant, A. D. E. L. I was interviewed and got the job. This particular plant made the hydraulic valve system for the B-17. And where did they put women? In the burr room. You sat at a workbench, which was essentially like a picnic table with a bunch of other women, and you worked grinding and sanding machine parts to make them smooth. That’s what you did all day long. It was very mechanical and it was very boring. There were about thirty women in the burr room, and it was like being in a beauty shop every day. I couldn’t stand the inane talk. So when they asked me if I would like to work someplace else in the shop, I said I very much would.

They started training me. I went to a blueprint class and learned how to use a micrometer and how to draw tools out of the tool crib and everything else. Then one day they said, “Okay, how would you like to go into the machine shop?”

I said, “Terrific.”

And they said, “Now, Adele, it’s going to be a real challenge because you’ll be the only woman in the machine shop.” I thought to myself, well, that’s going to be fun, all those guys and Adele in the machine shop. So the foreman took me over there. It was a big room, with a high ceiling and fluorescent lights, and it was very noisy. I walked in there, in my overalls, and suddenly all the machines stopped and every guy in the shop just turned around and looked at me. It took, I think, two weeks before anyone even talked to me. The discrimination was indescribable. They wanted to kill me.

My attitude was, “Okay, you bastards. I’m going to prove to you I can do anything you can do, and maybe better than some of you.” And that’s exactly the way it turned out. I used to do the rework on the pieces that the guy on the shift before me had screwed up. I finally got assigned to nothing but rework.

Later they taught me to run an automatic screwing machine. It’s a big mother, and it took a lot of strength just to throw that thing into gear. They probably thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. But I was determined to succeed. As a matter of fact I developed the most fantastic biceps from throwing that machine into gear. Even today I still have a little of that muscle left.

Anyway, eventually some of the men became very friendly, particularly the older ones, the ones in their late forties or fifties. They were journeymen tool and die makers and were so skilled that they could work anywhere at very high salaries. They were sort of fatherly, protective. They weren’t threatened by me. The younger men, I think, were.

Our plant was an open shop, and the International Association of Machinists was trying to unionize the workers. I joined and worked to try to get the union in the plant. I proselytized for the union during lunch hour and I had a big altercation with the management over that. The employers and my leadman and foreman called me into the office and said, “We have a right to fire you.”

I said, “On what basis? I work as well or better than anybody else in the shop except the journeymen.”

They said, “No, not because ofthat, because you’re talking for the union on company property. You’re not allowed to do that.”

I said, “Well, that’s just too bad, because I can’t get off the grounds here. You won’t allow us to leave the grounds during lunch hour. And you don’t pay me for my lunch hour, so that time doesn’t belong to you, so you can’t tell me what to do.” And they backed down.

I had one experience at the plant that really made me work for the union. One day while I was burring, I had an accident and ripped some cartilage out of my hand. It wasn’t serious, but it looked kind of messy.

They had to take me over to the industrial hospital to get my hand sutured. I came back and couldn’t work for a day or two because my hand was all bandaged. It wasn’t serious, but it was awkward. When I got my paycheck, I saw that they had docked me for time that I was in the industrial hospital. When I saw that I was really mad.

It’s ironic that when the union finally got into the plant, they had me transferred out. They were anxious to get rid of me because, after we got them in, I went to a few meetings and complained about it being a Jim Crow union. So they arranged for me to have a higher rating instead of a worker’s rating. This allowed me to make twenty-five cents an hour more, and I got transferred to another plant. By this time I was married. When I became pregnant I worked for about three months more, then I quit.

For me defense work was the beginning of my emancipation as a woman. For the first time in my life I found out that I could do something with my hands besides bake a pie.

SYBIL LEWIS: RIVETER, ARC WELDER