“Rosies” in the Work Force
While women worked in a variety of positions previously closed to them during World War II, the aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers. More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as illustrated by the U.S. government’s “Rosie the Riveter” propaganda campaign. Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker, but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era.
In movies, newspapers, posters, photographs and articles, the Rosie the Riveter campaign stressed the patriotic need for women to enter the work force. On May 29, 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published a cover image by the artist Norman Rockwell, portraying Rosie with a flag in the background and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s racist tract “Mein Kampf” under her feet. Though Rockwell’s image may be the most commonly known version of Rosie the Riveter, her prototype was actually created in 1942 and featured on a poster for the Westinghouse power company under the headline “We Can Do It!” Early in 1943, a popular song debuted called “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and the name went down in history.
Women in the Armed Forces
In addition to factory work and other home front jobs, some 350,000 women joined the Armed Services, serving at home and abroad. At the urging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and women’s groups, and impressed by the British use of women in service, General George Marshall supported the idea of introducing a women’s service branch into the Army. In May 1942, Congress instituted the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, later upgraded to the Women’s Army Corps, which had full military status. Its members, known as WACs, worked in more than 200 non-combatant jobs stateside and in every theater of the war. By 1945, there were more than 100,000 WACs and 6,000 female officers. In the Navy, members of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) held the same status as naval reservists and provided support stateside. The Coast Guard and Marine Corps soon followed suit, though in smaller numbers.
One of the lesser-known roles women played in the war effort was provided by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. These women, each of whom had already obtained their pilot’s license prior to service, became the first women to fly American military aircraft. They ferried planes from factories to bases, transporting cargo and participating in simulation strafing and target missions, accumulating more than 60 million miles in flight distances and freeing thousands of male U.S. pilots for active duty in World War II. More than 1,000 WASPs served, and 38 of them lost their lives during the war. Considered civil service employees and without official military status, these fallen WASPs were granted no military honors or benefits, and it wasn’t until 1977 that the WASPs received full military status.