Remembering the Rosies
A story first posted last week on People.com, shared at last count by more than 58,000 readers, reported the rediscovery after seven decades of the real life inspiration of what the article called the “iconic” Rosie the Riveter poster. The image of a muscular female factory worker, blue-shirted, with a red bandana covering her permed hair, captured a whole cohort of women who entered the work force and took on traditional men’s jobs during World War II, especially in the defense industry and other essential trades.
Naomi Parker-Fraley, now 95, was attending a reunion in 2009 at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Park when she spotted a photo of the real woman behind the poster, captioned with the name of Geraldine Hoff Doyle. Parker-Fraley was horrified by this, having witnessed what was a case of mis-identity. When the poster was printed and featured in newspapers and magazines nationwide in 1942, Naomi had had been feted as the turret lathe operator whose photo was used to create this symbol, a stand-in for the three-million-plus additional women who had broken through the industrial job barriers at a time of great need.
This latest People story was about correcting the record for all time, naming Parker-Fraley as the original poster model indeed, and restoring her personal history and dignity.
Touted as patriotic heroines during those battle years, almost immediately following victory by the allied forces and the return of thousands of soldiers seeking to regain or locate jobs these same Rosie the Riveter women were sent home, shrinking the overall percentage of American women working to only a little more than a quarter of the entire adult female population.
Really sent home. Home presumably to housekeep in those cookie cutter suburban developments that mushroomed to fill a huge housing gap. Home to birth the three, four, and five children each that created what became the post-war Baby Boom.
This is the social milieu my mother came into at the beginning of her paid work life, after graduating college at the tail end of the war — admitted into a school that might not have been so welcoming to her had there not been so few remaining young male applicants. She had a bachelor’s degree in sociology, which translated for her only into low level and low paying office jobs, first with the Library of Congress and for a short while with the Red Cross, both considered only temporary positions until she found a husband and started her child rearing years.
Four children and 15 years later my mother longed for work again, this time more in keeping with her academic training and ambitions. In the early 1960s, this urge was not well-received by my father, who took it as an insulting affront to his male provider status. Her return to school to get an advanced degree, and her part-time and then full-time work, left her children to fend for themselves. This especially affected my youngest brother, who was five years old when she first walked out the domestic door. With no social supports, such as wrap around childcare, we were latchkey kids before the term was coined. We rode our bikes down to the Lucky Store to buy quantities of raw chicken wings to bake and cheap chuck steaks and cheaper soda by the quart. We fought. We messed up the house and, as the only girl, I did the best I could to clean up behind us.
No matter my efforts at 11 or 12, the house was dusty, sour with the smell of bathroom mildew and neglected freezers. One of my potential friends, an aloof sixth grader named Laurie, with Dutch bangs and an upturned nose, visited once and reported on the dodgeball court that we had the messiest house she had ever seen. First, I wept with mortification and then spend the remaining eight years at home scrubbing baseboard grime, the piles of dirty dishes, and the dog hair on the stained beige carpet.
My mother just died at almost 93. In the past month, her remaining children have shared stories, some fond and many resentful, recalling that her youngest child — my brother Russ who passed away two years ago — resented her mightily for abandoning him to go to a job. He remembered that he was mostly left to trail after his otherwise occupied and sometimes cruel older siblings, and that chaos often reigned.
I find myself so much more forgiving of my mother now, when I think of the choices she had. And, more telling, of the dearth of practical backing for her decision to work outside the home. As ill luck would have it, she missed out on the brief and opportunistic (for the economy and war effort) Rosie the Riveter period, where of necessity there was some effort to make it possible for women with children to weld and rivet and engage in fields that had previously been off limits. To provide workplaces that sometimes, certainly not always, welcomed them and figured out ways for them to show up, be productive, and sustain their families.
Her desire — and need — to work, like so many other women then and now, was more thwarted than supported by a society that sent its Rosies back home with the message that they were on their own. How different is it really now?