History In The Headlines

Fighting to Save Rosie the Riveter’s Factory

By Sarah Pruitt
Most famously pictured wearing a bandanna and flexing her muscles under the slogan “We Can Do It,” the fictional female worker known as “Rosie the Riveter” became a patriotic symbol during World War II, and later emerged as an icon of the feminist movement. Rosie, one of the most recognizable figures of the war era, represented the millions of American women who joined the work force from 1940 to 1945. One of these was Rose Will Monroe, who was working as a riveter at Michigan’s Willow Run Bomber Plant when she was asked to star in a promotional film for war bonds. Thanks to her appearance in the film, Monroe became the woman most identify as the “real” Rosie the Riveter. Now a non-profit group is fighting to save the decrepit Willow Run factory from demolition and preserve its historic legacy. If successful, they plan to use part of Monroe’s former workplace to house the Yankee Air Museum, dedicated to aviation history.

rosie-the-riveterFrom 1940 to 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. work force increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by the end of that period nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. In 1943, the aircraft industry alone employed more than 310,000 women, one of whom was Kentucky native Rose Will Monroe. After her husband was killed in a car accident in 1942, Monroe had left Kentucky with her two young children and taken a job on the assembly line as a riveter of B-24 and B-29 bomber airplanes at the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, west of Detroit.

At the time Monroe worked there, the 332-acre former Ford Motor Company plant was the largest factory in the world, employing some 40,000 workers, an untold number of them women. All told, Willow Run would produce some 9,000 B-24 Liberator bombers to be used on the European front during World War II. By 1944, the plant was turning out a bomber every hour.

It was during that year that an actor named Walter Pidgeon, star of various wartime propaganda films, arrived at the factory to shoot footage for a film promoting the sale of war bonds. When he discovered that there was a woman named Rosie working as a riveter at the factory, he invited her to appear in the film as well. By that time, the character of Rosie the Riveter had become a well-established patriotic symbol, thanks to her starring role in a popular 1943 song and her depiction in a famous Norman Rockwell painting that appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post that same year. In the Rockwell painting, Rosie appears on her lunch break, eating a sandwich with a flag in the background and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s racist tract “Mein Kampf” under her feet. The prototype for Rosie, however, and the image most often associated with her today, was the bandanna-clad woman on the 1942 “We Can Do It!” promotional poster, designed for the Westinghouse Power Company by graphic artist J. Howard Miller.

Though her appearance in the film earned her a reputation as the “real” Rosie, Monroe didn’t capitalize on her fame. She left Willow Run after the war ended but remained in the work force, driving a cab, opening a beauty shop and even starting her own construction company. When she was in her 50s, Monroe even achieved her dream of becoming a pilot. A flying accident in 1978 robbed her of a kidney however, and the loss contributed to her death of kidney failure in 1997.

As for the Willow Run factory, it went back to producing automobiles after 1945, and operated for more than 50 years under the General Motors name. The plant closed for good in 2010, and is currently in the hands of the Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response (RACER) Trust, which took over various sites around the country that were left behind after GM’s bankruptcy that year.

Now, a nonprofit group called the Michigan Aerospace Foundation is seeking to raise some $8 million to save part of the Willow Run plant and convert it into a home for its sister organization, the Yankee Air Museum. The group has already raised $4.5 million and was struggling to raise the remaining $3.5 million by the original deadline, which was this Thursday, August 1. Today, however, the RACER Trust announced it was extending that deadline by 60 days, giving the foundation a little extra time (until October 1) to build on what the trust sees as the “success and momentum” of its campaign.

According to Dennis Norton, founder of the Yankee Air Museum, he and his fellow fundraisers are “grateful to be able to continue working toward our goal of preserving a portion of the former bomber plant to tell…how Americans, men and women of all races, came together to not just build aircraft needed to win World War II, but to change the country forever.” If their campaign is successful, the museum will move from its current site, on the grounds of Willow Run Airport, to a section of the Willow Run plant. Though it has now fallen into disrepair, the section in question once marked the end of the plant’s assembly line, where World War II-era bombers were completed and exited the plant for delivery to the government.

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Categories: Women's History, World War II