There are images that come to mind when one thinks of World War II. Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, soldiers landing in France on D-Day, and Rosie the Riveter in her bandana, flexing her muscles. These are just some of the more popular images and symbols of the nation’s effort to combat tyranny in the 1940s.
The image of Rosie the Riveter was created to entice women to join the workforce. It was painted by Norman Rockwell and the image first appeared publicly on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. In it, a muscular woman enjoys a meal break and her riveting gun branded “Rosie” is nearby and she has her foot on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. That image would be the basis for an image used later by the federal government to create the “We Can Do It!” posters.
Women, as we know, mobilized on the home front as men joined the armed forces to serve wherever they were needed during the war. As America’s involvement in the war began in two theaters, the war effort required massive amounts of munitions, weapons, ships, aircraft, supplies, tanks and vehicles. With most men entering military service, women across the United States were hired for production jobs. They helped build the hardware that men would use in World War II.
Fact 1: Not Just a Few, But Many
The term “Rosie” was first used in 1942 to refer to female factory workers who entered the workforce by the millions, leaving their domestic lives to help the nation. Often excluded and overlooked by history are women known as “Black Rosies.” Millions of women were Rosie the Riveters. Of that, more than 500,000 African American women also contributed to the effort.
Prior to becoming Black Rosies, the African American women held mostly domestic jobs as housekeepers, cooks, and cleaning ladies. Many in the south were also sharecroppers, according to academics. But joining the workforce for the Black Rosies was not easy. Because of discrimination, many weren’t hired until legislation was passed requiring all government contractors to hire a diverse workforce, including people of color and women.
By the mid-1940s, airplane manufacturers were the largest employers of women in the United States. Vehicle manufacturers came in second. Married women became the largest civilian working demographic in the United States for the first time ever. The number of working mothers increased by 400% and that included Black Rosies.
Fact 2: Discrimination Was Rampant
Black Rosies contributed to the war effort no different than anyone else at the time, but they often faced lower pay and stricter employment rules. Nonetheless, they worked tirelessly in factories, shipyards, and wherever they were needed. History has tended to overlook their contributions.
Becoming Black Rosies was not only a patriotic opportunity for African American women to aid in the war effort, but it was also a chance for economic empowerment. Employment at these established companies gave the Black Rosies leverage to seek a better life. Serving as part of the war effort enabled the Black Rosies to earn money outside of domestic jobs. It enabled them to pursue a better life in many cases.
Black Rosies made up a large part of the African American workforce during World War II. Of the 1 million African American workers hired during the war effort, nearly 600,000 were women known as Black Rosies.
In addition to working in factories, many learned skilled trades and became experienced electricians, welders, railroad conductors and sheet metal specialists, to name a few. But industrial jobs weren’t the only jobs that Black Rosies performed, they also worked as computer scientists and clerk typists.
Women were paid much lower rates than their male counterparts, despite their important roles. Black Rosies were paid even less. On average, women were paid 10 to 15 cents an hour lower than their male counterparts, despite equal pay regulations.
Black Rosies and their African American male counterparts received fewer benefits and were barred from controlling any union activities. The shipbuilder’s union blocked African Americans from membership altogether. Black Rosies would share after the war that their white co-workers were given frequent promotions or salary increases, but Black Rosies were rarely offered a chance for advancement.
Fact 3: Their Stories Went Untold for Decades
The plight and contributions of Black Rosies have only come to light in the past couple of decades. As the country continues to reconcile the actions of some Americans in the past, many of these stories are surfacing and are being shared as part of the whole history of the United States, rather than just anecdotes of those who have ordinarily controlled the narrative.
Black Rosies are a testament to the contributions of African Americans to the growth and prosperity of this country. Like the African American men who went overseas and fought in World War II for a nation that would not grant them equality in many parts of the country, Black Rosies served their nation and often did so under less than equal conditions. Many of them simply wanted to do their part just like their white Rosie the Riveters.
And it should not be forgotten that African American women also donned the uniform during World War II and served the nation as military personnel. There were all-women African American units that served with distinction and excelled in the limited roles they were given by the government.
African American women contributed greatly to the World War II effort. Black Rosies are people who have justifiably earned their place in American history.