- 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
Then I heard of an opening at American Steel for a crane operator, on a small ten-ton crane. I applied for it and got it. Then I had to learn it. The men said, “You won’t learn it. Women can’t do that job.” But they were wrong. I think I was the fourth woman hired in the mill. It wasn’t an important or dangerous job, just moving gun mounts and gun barrels around and cleaning up the floor in what they called the Navy building. The important work was inside the foundry, where they poured the steel. It was all men in the foundry. You had to have seniority to run one of those fifty-ton cranes because there was so much responsibility involved.
One day there was a terrible accident at the plant. One of the crane operators lost a load of steel, poured it all over. It just streamed everywhere, put a lot of lives in danger. After the accident they took him to the doctor and he was examined carefully. They found that he was losing his eyesight, that he couldn’t see that far away in the brightness to pour the steel. They had to take him off the crane and needed an immediate replacement. They looked around and there wasn’t anyone but women. The men they still had were on jobs where they couldn’t be replaced.
By this time I had moved up to operating a fifty-ton crane and I had learned the language of the foundry, the sign language with which you communicate to your rigger or chainman. So they offered the job to me, and I took it. Pouring steel was the hardest job in the mill, and the men said, “It’s too big a responsibility for a woman. She’ll never last.” But I did.
The hardest part for me was sanding the rails. The rails are what the wheels of the crane run on. They’re way up in the air over the concrete floor and they have to be sanded every eight-hour shift, because if your rails get too slick, your hook will slide. That was the first time I had a crane with railings before, and when I found out that the operators had to sand them, I was almost scared to death. I thought, “I can’t do that. I can’t look down at that concrete and put this little bucket of sand up and down. I just can’t do it.” And one of the men said, “Well, that’ll get her. She’ll never sand them tracks.” That’s what made me sand them. After that I had to. I had to show them I could do it.
It took a while to be accepted. We had a big coke stove and we’d gather around it to get warm. On occasion, when I had time to come down and take my breaks, the men would stand so close together around the stove that there wasn’t room for me. So I just leaned up against the wall. The wall was warmer than where they were standing anyway because it had absorbed the heat from all the hours the fire had been going. So I would lean up against the wall and laugh at their jokes. And I would offer them a doughnut if I had one and so forth. So actually I made the overtures. And after a while they began to accept me.
During the war the morale inside the plants was extremely high. Not just myself, but everybody, gave everything they had. They wanted to do it. Today you don’t sit around and talk about patriotism while you’re drinking a beer, but you did back then. I mean you had a neighbor next door—maybe he lived states and states away—and if you were like me, often you couldn’t understand what he said, but you had this great thing in common. You were all pulling together for one great war effort.
I was never absent, and I wasn’t unique in that. There was very little absenteeism where I worked. If I woke up in the morning and I didn’t feel too good and I really didn’t want to work, I could make myself go by thinking, “What about those boys who are getting up at five o’clock, maybe haven’t even been to bed? Maybe they’re leaning their chin on a bayonet just to stay awake on watch. I don’t even know their names. They don’t even have faces to me, but they’re out there somewhere overseas. And I’m saying that I don’t feel like going to work today because I’ve got a headache?” That would get me out of bed and into work. And by the time I’d stayed there a couple of hours, it was okay. I was going to make it So I never stayed at home.
There was only one really difficult problem with working. That was leaving my two-and-one-half-year-old daughter. When a mother goes away from home and starts to work for her first time, there is always a feeling of guilt. Any mother that has ever done this has had this feeling. I couldn’t cope with it at first.