NYU’s Tamiment Library Introduces “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project” Oral History Archive

Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” Women’s Stories Come to Life
Two of the 48 interviews in The Real Rosie the Riveter Project at NYU's Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

In 1942, with the United States at war and many young men overseas, an acute labor shortage was threatening both the continued output of American manufacturing and the very war effort itself. Industries historically averse to hiring women now 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 8 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.

New York University’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, presents a new collection of filmed oral histories entitled “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project.” The real Rosie the Riveters, now in their 80s and 90s, 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 experience and perspective to a transformational time in the lives of these “Rosies,” 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 Real Rosie the Riveter Project Oral History 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,” said 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.”

Some of the women’s stories are highlighted below:

·         Angeline Fleming, born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1919, worked as a riveter on the B-29 bomber in Detroit, which later honored her as a “Detroit Rosie the Riveter” on her 90th birthday.

·         Marion Yagoda began making wing tips for B-29s when she was only 16; her father did not believe that young women needed a high school diploma. Yagoda earned one in her eighties.

·         Cleveland-born Idilia Johnston rebelled against her “controlling” Scottish parents by leaving home for a defense job with the Ohio Crankshaft Company. From there, she joined the Navy.

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.

“There were between 8 and 16 million women who stepped into jobs traditionally identified as men’s work. I wanted to bring these very real stories to life” said Hemmerdinger. “I felt we had a moral imperative to break down the long existing icon of ‘Rosie’ and give these stories to the world.”

This inspiration led to the idea of collecting as many interviews as possible and donating them to the Tamiment archive.

“We made these stories of our forgotten WWII Rosie heroes available to the public in the hope that people will utilize this archive to teach,” Hemmerdinger said. Most of the 33 interviews are full histories describing early family life, education, employment experiences before the war, wartime work, and life after World War II. As one would expect, a complex picture emerges.

In order to find the living “Rosies” to interview, Hemmerdinger and the filmmakers began by reaching out to friends, colleagues, and the American Rosie the Riveter Association.

“We found our first Rosies through close personal connections,” said Hemmerdinger. “One is Bonnie Gifford, Kirsten Kelly’s grandmother; one was a close artistic colleague; and we found one through an elder outreach program nearby.”

The filmmakers were surprised by the response to a simple ad they placed in the newsletter of the Michigan Library Association.  Hundreds of women contacted them to share their stories.

Through trips made in the spring of 2010 to areas of high industrial production during WWII, the team found a concentrated number of amazing Rosies in Detroit and Baltimore. Additionally, the team was invited to film at the 2010 American Rosie the Riveter Conference held in Nashville.  There they were able to meet and film Rosies from across the nation.

Looking back, the Rosie narrators found their wartime work experience transformative. It changed the way they viewed themselves and the world around them, instilling confidence while leading them to a new understanding of what women were capable of and providing a sense of pride and accomplishment that has remained with them throughout their lives.

When the war ended, many Rosies were asked to return to the home, but many continued working and some went on to college and graduate school. Class, ethnicity, race and sexual orientation also defined the wartime and postwar experiences of many of the Rosies.

“I hope young people will look at these real-life Rosie interviews and gain insight and inspiration for their own lives,” Hemmerdinger said.

The project producers were so inspired by these collected Rosie stories that they have embarked on producing a feature length documentary based on the “Real Rosie the Riveter Project,” which will go beyond the iconic “We Can Do It” poster girl and put a human face on the Rosie experience. The film is currently in development and will be released in 2013.

About Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University:

The Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University is a unique, internationally-known center for scholarly research on Labor and the Left. The primary focus is the complex relationship between trade unionism and progressive politics and how this evolved over time. Archival, print, photograph, film, and oral history collections describe the history of the labor movement and how it related to the broader struggle for economic, social, and political change.

About the Filmmakers www.spargelproductions.com

SPARGEL PRODUCTIONS is a film and documentary production company based in New York City. Filmmakers and theater artists Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly founded Spargel in 2002 to produce their award-winning documentary "Asparagus! Stalking the American Life." This feature film about a spirited rural community’s struggle against U.S. Drug Policy, Free Trade and the Fast Food Nation premiered at The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in 2006 and went on to win Best Documentary and Audience Choice Awards in festivals across the country as well as the W.K. Kellogg Good Food Film Award. "Asparagus!" was released on DVD in 2008 and the film was broadcast on PBS in 2009. Current projects include “The List,” a surprising new documentary feature about homeless youth in inner-city Chicago that was recently awarded a Sundance Institute Development Grant and is scheduled for release in 2012-13, and “Juilliard Discoveries,” a short documentary about four-to-six year old virtuoso musicians. Their film and video work has been seen on stage at Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory, and additional clients include The New York Times and New York University.

About Elizabeth Hemmerdinger--Elizabeth Hemmerdinger is a born-and-bred New Yorker and award-winning playwright and screenwriter. She is the founder of “Behind The Scenes at Tisch,” a program dedicated to developing new works by new writers at New York University, where she received her MFA in 2003. Her plays have been presented in venues from New York to Los Angeles, including the Williamstown Theater Festival, The Denver Center and, most recently, the University of Texas/Austin. Her play “Squall” is available through Playscripts, Inc., which has published her short works in two collections. She is currently working with Anne de Mare and Larry Gatlin on a musical, set in Brooklyn, N.Y., about the day that an extraordinary girl becomes Rosie the Riveter.

Elizabeth is a founding board member of Dancing Dreams, a program that fosters an environment where children with physical challenges, along with their teenage helpers, participate in the art of dance, giving them a chance to experience the pure joy of movement. Elizabeth is also a board member of Women's Voices For Change, an organization dedicated to redefining life after 40, which runs www.womensvoicesforchange.org.


Special Thanks to Carol Mandel; Michael Nash; Donnaleen Lanktree and the American Rosie The Riveter Association; Frances Resheske; Dale Hemmerdinger; Brian Hoffman; Melitte Buchman; Alice Moscoso; Alexandra Naides; MiMi Rose Hall; Sacha Schwimmer; and to all our funders:


Mr. Robert H. Abrams; ACC Construction; Benjamin and Susan Winter Foundation; Bernard & Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust; Senator Richard and Mrs. Cynthia Blumenthal; Consolidated Edison Co. of New York; Denise & Andrew Saul Foundation; Heidi Ettinger; Charlotte K. Frank, Ph.D.; Schiff Hardin; Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg; Michael Katz; Mrs. Naomi B. Levine; Chris McGuinness; PLM Foundation; Palisades Media Corp; Peter Malkin Fund; Jack and Valerie Rowe; Mrs. Judith Seslowe; Silverstein Properties, Inc.; Susan and Elihu Rose Foundation; Town Hall Foundation, Inc; Lillian Vernon Foundation

A project of the Tamiment Library. Powered by NYU DLTS

Who is the Real Rosie the Riveter? Filmmakers Anne de Mare, Kirsten Kelly and Elizabeth Hemmerdinger take you beyond the iconic “We Can Do It” poster girl into the experiences of real Rosies from diverse backgrounds, challenging the popular perception of women in American History.

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