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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 women worked in pairs. I was the riveter and this big, strong white girl from a cotton farm in Arkansas worked as the bucker. The riveter used a gun to shoot rivets through the metal and fasten it together. The bucker used a bucking bar on the other side of the metal to smooth out the rivets. Bucking was harder than shooting rivets; it required more muscle. Riveting required more skill.
I worked for a while as a riveter with this white girl when the boss came around one day and said, “We’ve decided to make some changes.” At this point he assigned her to do the riveting and me to do the bucking. I wanted to know why. He said, “Well, we just interchange once in a while.” But I was never given the riveting job back. This was the first encounter I had with segregation in California, and it didn’t sit too well with me. It brought back some of my experiences in Sapulpa—you’re a Negro, so you do the hard work. I wasn’t failing as a riveter—in fact, the other girl learned to rivet from me— but I felt they gave me the job of bucker because I was black.
I walked into the machine shop, in my overalls. Suddenly the machines stopped, and every guy looked at me.
So I applied to Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica and was hired as a riveter there. On that job I did not encounter the same prejudice.
I worked in aircraft for a few years, then in ’43 I saw an ad in the paper for women trainees to learn arc welding. The salary sounded good, from $1.00 to $1.25 an hour. I wanted to learn that skill and I wanted to make more money, so I answered the ad and they sent me to a short course at welding school. After I passed the trainee course, they employed me at the shipyards. That was a little different than working in aircraft because in the shipyard you found mostly men. There I ran into another kind of discrimination; because I was a woman I was paid less than a man for doing the same job.
I was an arc welder, I’d passed both the Army and Navy tests, and I knew I could do the job, but I found from talking with some of the men that they made more money. You’d ask about this, but they’d say, “Well, you don’t have the experience,” or, “The men have to lift some heavy pieces of steel and you don’t have to,” but I knew that I had to help lift steel too.
They started everyone off at $1.20 an hour. There were higher-paying jobs, though, like chippers and crane operators that were for men only. Once, the foreman told me I had to go on the skids—the long docks alongside the hull. I said, “That sounds pretty dangerous. Will I make more than $1.20 an hour?” And he said, “No, $1.20 is the top pay you’ll get.” But the men got more.
It was interesting that although they didn’t pay women as much as men, the men treated you differently if you wore slacks. I noticed, for example, that when you’d get on the bus or the streetcar, you stood all the way, more than the lady who would get on with a dress. I never could understand why men wouldn’t give women in slacks a seat. And at the shipyards the language wasn’t the best. Nobody respected you enough to clean up the way they spoke. It didn’t seem to bother the men that you were a woman. During the war years men began to say, you have a man’s job and you’re getting paid almost the same, so we don’t have to give you a seat anymore or show the common courtesies that men show women. All those niceties were lost.
I enjoyed working at the shipyard—it was a unique job for a woman—and I liked the challenge. But it was a dangerous job. The safety measures were very poor. Many people were injured by falling steel. Finally I was assigned to a very hazardous area and I asked to be transferred into a safer area. I was not granted that. They said you have to work where they assign you at all times. I thought it was getting too dangerous, so I quit.
The war years had a tremendous impact on women. I know for myself it was the first time I had a chance to get out of the kitchen and work in industry and make a few bucks. This was something I had never dreamed would happen. In Sapulpa all that women had to look forward to was keeping house and raising families. The war years offered new possibilities. You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job. This was the beginning of women’s feeling that they could do something more. We were trained to do this kind of work because of the war, but there was no question that this was just an interim period. We were all told that when the war was over, we would not be needed anymore.