In 1942, with the United States at war and many young men overseas, a labor shortage was threatening both American manufacturing and, thus, the war effort itself. Industries historically averse to hiring women threw open their doors, challenging traditionally sexist views and forever altering the composition of the workforce.
During the World War II years, it is estimated that between eight and 16 million women were employed in critical trades, including automobiles, shipbuilding, aircraft manufacturing, electrical equipment manufacture, and transportation. For many women this was an opportunity for independence, money of their own, and seeing the country. At the peak of wartime employment, women constituted between one-third and one-half of the workers in many basic industries, jobs hitherto considered “men’s work.”
Now, nearly 70 years later, 48 of these women’s stories are being told in their own voices.
NYU’s Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, in conjunction with filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly of Spargel Productions (NYC) and executive producer, writer, and playwright Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, have established a new collection of filmed oral histories, entitled “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project.” These Rosies, now in their eighties and nineties, were interviewed over the past two years by Spargel Productions.
“They don’t talk just about walking into the factory,” says Hemmerdinger. “We get their whole lives. We get stories of the Depression; of racial, class, and gender divides. A story of America.”
The interviews, now publicly available online at http://dlib.nyu.edu/rosie/interviews, bring a lifetime of perspective to a transformational time in the lives of these women, when they gave the United States a new icon of strength, determination, and reliability on their way to changing the perception of working women.
According to Michael Nash, head of the Tamiment Library, the archive will support cross-disciplinary research in gender studies, military history, American history, labor history, social work and sociology.
“This intimate look at the lives of women who joined the war effort is an invaluable cultural and historical document,” says Nash. “Real life Rosies describe their experience in what had been traditional men’s jobs in the war industries—most notably airplane and ship building and electronics—but despite these breakthroughs, the Rosies still worked in gender-segregated workplaces. Sadly, after the war most of them lost their well paying jobs.”
The project started out as background research to enhance Hemmerdinger’s MFA thesis play, We Can Do It!, which she wrote as a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. She started her research at Tamiment’s oral history archive, but was surprised at how little primary source material there was in archival audio or video footage on real-life Rosies.
“I felt we had a moral imperative to break down the long existing icon of ‘Rosie’ and give these stories to the world,” says Hemmerdinger.
The project producers were so inspired by these collected Rosie stories that they have embarked on producing a feature-length documentary based on the archive. The film is currently in development and will be released in 2013.