What a Real-Life Rosie the Riveter Taught This Feminist Geek

Before meeting Geraldine, I’d assumed that most of the women from the 1940s were unaware of how capable they were. I was wrong.
Riveters_650px.jpg

Jane Winley and her sister, Martha, riveting in 1943 at the THF1150 Ford Motor Co. Willow Run Bomber Plant. Photo by Flickr / The Henry Ford.

A few weeks ago, I walked into a room full of professional, accomplished business ladies at a meeting of the Washington State Business and Professional Women (WBPW). I was invited by my mother, the high-ranking saleswoman, to come meet her friends—the lawyers, psychologists, doctors, professors, and general business champions. As a budding freelance writer with an interest in feminism, I jumped at the chance to surround myself with strong career women whom I could learn from.

As a real-life Rosie the Riveter, she helped make the careers of all the other women in the room possible.

Even after the progress women have made, it’s not easy being a woman in a society where so many professional fields are still dominated by men. Being a writer whose interests include video games and politics, I’ve experienced this personally. As many commenters on my articles have expressed, there are still plenty of men out there who don’t think that women have a right to speak on these subjects.

That’s why I’m so interested in my roots—the roots of professional women. I went to the WBPW meeting looking for inspiration and for stories. I wanted to learn about what it was like to push through perhaps much worse sexism from these incredible older women.

As it turned out, I would learn by far the most from a woman quite unlike anyone else there. The oldest by at least a generation, she didn’t hold a doctorate or run a law practice, or offer the same firm, businesslike handshake that I’d received from everyone else. As a retired woman in her 80s, she was no longer attached to a career. She was quiet and soft-spoken, almost invisible among the crowd of bold and proud professionals. And yet her story was more interesting than anyone else’s.

Geraldine was her name. As a real-life Rosie the Riveter, she helped make the careers of all the other women in the room possible.

Her story

A week later, we talked about her life as we ate at her favorite diner in Burien, Washington. Born on a small farmstead in Washington state in the 1930s, Geraldine was just coming into adulthood when World War II began. If it hadn’t been for the war, she may never have left the farm. The man she was seeing was drafted and shipped out, but during his first leave of absence, they married and she moved with him to Hill Air Force Base (then called Hillfield), about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City.

“In the culture I came from, in the little farming community, if women even finished high school—and many of them didn't—they married the farmer boys around them,” she told me. “The guy they married inherited the farms and that's how it was.”

But when she got to Hill, she met people from all over the country, from New York to Oklahoma, who had traveled there to find any work they could get. “They seemed to be on the move,” she said.

It wasn’t long before her new husband was shipped back to the line of duty. Thanks to a beauty license she had earned while in high school, Geraldine was able to find work at a local salon to support herself. However, with the economy still feeling the effects of the Great Depression and resources scarce from the war, she was only able to afford a tiny living space in the basement of the beauty salon. It was little more than a bed separated from other beds by a simple curtain. She and the others renting out these tiny living spaces—including men—had to share a bathroom and hope for privacy.

She and an assembly line of other young women repaired B-17 bombers that had been shot in action.

Eager to afford something more tolerable, she took the advice of her friends and found better paying work at Hill, where she and an assembly line of other young women repaired B-17 bombers that had been shot in action. Gasoline was tightly rationed at the time, so she and her friends would ride in the back of a pickup truck to get from the salon to the Air Force base.

“You couldn't just run around in the car for the fun of it,” she said. “But you got extra gas if you drove others around. So five of us would ride in the back of one lady’s pickup truck to get to work.”

Geraldine became a riveter, pounding out sheets of aluminum and, with the help of her partner, riveting them to the sides of the planes to cover up the bullet holes. “We drilled holes and held the patch over the plane, then we put the rivets through the holes.”

Despite women doing most of the work, they didn’t get much credit for it, and women at Hill were never promoted to leadership positions. Geraldine said that although most physically able men had been drafted, the military always found men to be foremen. They would test Geraldine’s work and then inscribe their initials on it.

She did this for a year and a half, until her husband was assigned to a base in Hawaii and she moved to San Francisco.

Rosie the Riveter

During World War II, the government relied heavily on women like Geraldine to fill the jobs normally done by the men who had been drafted. With so many men shipped overseas, the government had no choice but to encourage women to start working. And so, Rosie the Riveter was born.

“Rosie the Riveter” was a character used in a popular propaganda piece, but she didn’t have a name until a song came out in 1942 by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. Many people have seen the image of the woman in the blue work shirt, who rolls up her sleeves, flexes her arm, and says, “We can do it!”

Geraldine became a riveter, pounding out sheets of aluminum and, with the help of her partner, riveting them to the sides of the planes to cover up the bullet holes.

She was created to rally women to join the war effort, to work in factories making or repairing whatever the military needed. Popular slogans included: “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.” Combined with the image of Rosie the Riveter, these messages told women they could work just like men. It promoted healthy equality, at least for a time.

Once the war was over, however, Rosie disappeared. With men back home, the propaganda changed, encouraging women to leave their jobs so that men could take them. Women returned to clerical work, nursing, or tending to home. Although some continued to work those jobs, having gotten a taste of autonomy, many left. And many husbands refused to let their wives earn money.

In spite of society’s best efforts to forget what women had accomplished, it was too late: Rosie the Riveter had already stirred too much up.

My story

After so many years of trying to break into fields and hobbies that have long been considered only for men—writing, gaming, politics, geek culture—I got to meet one of the women who had proven we’re capable of much more. I wanted to know what it was like to be in the crux of that history, what she thought about it, and how she felt during a period that changed so much for women.

What I found was that it wasn’t just about realizing she could do the work. In fact, she never questioned whether it was possible. At a time when everything was rationed and people had to do whatever they could just to survive, taking the riveting job was a no-brainer. It was just what she had to do in order to get out of that salon basement.

And it’s no different today. When I think about it, it’s clear that women know they could fill all the roles dominated by men if given the chance. If, for some reason, all the male programmers and scientists and politicians and writers vanished, we would step up and take care of it. All of it. My female programmer friends could make your video games, and I could write your news reports, and the women I met at the WBPW meeting could take care of the rest. Trust me.

They just need to be given the opportunity and push that comes with necessity.

In spite of society’s best efforts to forget what women had accomplished, it was too late: Rosie the Riveter had already stirred them up.

Geraldine learned something similar. She learned that she could be on her own. She could get herself to work, pay her own bills and rent—and do it all without her husband around. Women like her became certain that with their skills and with their education, they would be just fine without men to support them. And through that, they came to know themselves.

“My story is just my little way of changing—not that I changed anything—but forming an identity and learning to be comfortable on my own,” Geraldine said in the end.

And the other women in the factory seemed to feel the same. A fellow riveter and friend even went on to become a pilot, dissatisfied with the simple work of repairing the planes.

“There was this one girl. She said, ‘Why am I here fooling with these riveters? I can fly these planes!’” Geraldine told me. “And she did!”

And, indeed, though few people know about it, there were organizations of women who pushed to become pilots in World War II, including the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. Although they weren’t involved in conflict, they would fly completed or damaged aircraft to and from U.S. Air Force bases, some of them losing their lives in the process.

And the women pilots would often be the ones flying the planes that were full of bullets. They would fly them all the way across the Atlantic and across the country to get them to Utah.

They may not be mentioned in history books, but the former riveters remembered those women and how capable they were.

Geraldine’s experience also made her realize how important education is: If she had never been able to attend high school (which many girls at the time had not) she never would have obtained her beauty license and been able to support herself at Hill in the first place. And she certainly wouldn’t have earned a master’s degree in history from the University of Washington 25 years later.

“If circumstances had been different, she would have only gone through the eighth grade,” Geraldine’s daughter, Nancy, told me at the diner. “She really worked hard to get her education, considering the time period. And she taught me that women need to have a trade, a skill, some way to make a living.”

Nancy now has her own law practice.

Women in the Air Force (WAF) officer saluting while at Lackland Naval Base in Texas, November 1952. Photo by Flickr / Beverly.

And the rest is history

I walked into the Burien diner expecting to hear about how the riveters had learned they could do the same work as men. As it turns out, they already knew they could.

Women in the U.S. and other countries had done the same in World War I, and many women, especially poor women, had been performing skilled work for many generations.

What WWII taught women is that they could live their lives entirely on their own, and in doing so, came to form their own independent identities outside of their husbands and families. Being forced to move around exposed them to different kinds of people and showed them the world beyond the farm.

And they pass this knowledge along to the next generation of women, including each of the doctors and lawyers and business women I met at the WBPW meeting. Is it any wonder that this was the generation that saw the passage of Title IX and the Women’s Educational Equity Act?

Armed with the knowledge that education meant independence, they fought against a massive wall of sexism until they not only got both for themselves, but made sure that all generations could do the same.

Though few people know about it, there were organizations of women who pushed to become pilots in World War II.

Before meeting Geraldine, I’d assumed that most of the women from the 1940s and earlier were like the ones you see in old advertisements: simple housewives without much ambition or desire to work until they were told they had to. I was wrong. Women back then knew what they were capable of. All they needed was a chance to try it out and form independent identities while they survived on their own. They were no different from how I was when I walked into a meeting of Business and Professional Women, looking for encouragement, inspiration, and a chance to further forge my own identity.

I can’t count on another world war to clear out the competition (probably a good thing), but thanks to women like Geraldine, I don’t have to. With history on my side, I can forge ahead armed with the confidence that I could do it all if I had to. Thanks to the riveters, I can make my own opportunities.