Women at the Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California, producing planes for the men at the front.
Elizabeth Hemmerdinger—producer, director, screenwriter, playwright—is entranced by the gumption, grit, and selfless dedication of the millions of American women who built the tanks, Jeeps, planes, and ships that enabled the Allies to win World War II.
These were, of course, the women we know as “Rosie the Riveters”—their image is the feisty dame on the striking poster that Westinghouse used in the early forties to recruit women for factory work.
Westinghouse recruiting poster, 1942.
Farm workers, housewives, secretaries, teachers, laundresses—some with no more than an eighth-grade education—they flooded into factories left empty by drafted men and took over the hard production jobs they had been told they would never be able to do. Not only could they do those jobs, they found, they could do them quickly and well. And that understanding has transformed the lives of the women who came after them.
“It has taken a couple of generations for the belief in women’s competence and ability to be independent to really sink in,” Hemmerdinger says. “Women of my generation have it . . . women in their sixties. But younger women, the 35-year-olds, they’re absolutely certain. ‘Fighter pilot?’ they’ll say. ‘No problem!’”
Hemmerdinger, and her partners Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, who founded the documentary-film firm Spargel Productions, so respect the transformational power of these ordinary women that several years ago they set out to film oral histories of as many Rosie as possible and make the women’s stories accessible to everyone today. They have gathered 48 fascinating video interviews with women who were “real Rosie the Riveters” and collaborated with the Tamiment Labor Archive at the Bobst Library at New York University to make the films accessible not only to members of the NYU community but also to visitors to the site—a departure from the standard procedure of private libraries. Their stories are available online. Watching them is sure to trigger a rush of admiration.
A few weeks ago, Hemmerdinger took the Rosies’ stories to a class at the U.S. Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island. This, the “Home of Thought” for the U.S. Navy, offers a Master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies in 10 months to military officers from all branches of the armed forces, career civilians from a variety of government agencies, and international naval officers. “The Naval War College brings exceptional officers together to learn all kinds of things,” Hemmerdinger says. “They study together, they engage in war games together, together they build communities—virtual and enduring—as America officers and the international officers who will be the military leaders and diplomats of the future.”
Hemmerdinger spoke to students in an elective class on “Women in Peace and War,” taught by Dr. Mary Raum, Professor of National Security Affairs. (Raum created the first gender-specific curriculum in War College history, entitled Femina Militaris,in which “students read about, analyze and discuss a variety of biographies and autobiographies and articles as well as utilize art and watch films related to ancient and modern women and their roles in the profession of arms.”)
One student’s grandmother had been a Rosie. But for all, discussion of the cultural shift created by the employment of more than 16,000,000 women within a couple of years, their financial independence, their quick affinity for the strength that comes of camaraderie, was enlightening. Hemmerdinger used some visual aids, including this recruiting film starring Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an initiator and prime asset in convincing American women that they could do it); and a recent how-to film on riveting.
“These women were brave,” Hemmerdinger is quick to point out. “Shipbuilding was a dangerous job. You’d fall from vast heights, or something would fall on you, or you’d be burned, or your limbs could be crushed. Welding is tough; sparks fly all over. Riveting is either done with an ice-cold or a hot rivet; in some places you were shooting burning hot rivets while your partner, the bucker, was pushing a block of metal against the incoming rivet to spread the end against the interior skin while, for instance, being all scrunched up in the interior of an airplane wing.
“The Rosies were great examples of grace and expertise; they worked very long hours and were doing it for the American way of life, for their brothers, lovers, sons. Listen to the oral histories in the Real Rosie Project, we hear most tell us earnestly, ‘I was doing it for the men at war.’ They learned camaraderie, which was a big change for women who had been so isolated at home. And that spoke right to what these officers are studying today at the Naval War College.”
Camaraderie, indeed: Esther Horne tells of the gentle, humorous initiations decreed by the men where she worked; newbies would be sent to the storeroom for “a left-handed hammer” or a “bastard wrench,” just to make them blush. And she speaks dreamily of the literary lunch hours, when the Rosies would gather to listen spellbound as their boss read them scenes from Othello.
Jerre Kalbas and Esther Horn offering details on life as a Rosie.
The officers in the class had much to teach Hemmerdinger. An intelligence officer described what he’d learned by studying the life of Rhonda Cornum, an army flight surgeon whose Blackhawk helicopter was downed during the Gulf War. She had two broken arms when she was taken prisoner. Through the trauma of her brutal treatment during captivity she developed a philosophy of “positive traumatic growth.” The officer uses this concept to imbue in his troops a sense that, though post-traumatic stress is real, one can also use terrible trauma to develop resilience.
“These are exceptional people; for the most part, they are warriors who work for modest pay, particularly given that they will probably see combat and risk horrific injury; their families have to live without them for months at a time or follow them from base to base,” Hemmerdinger says. “I saw just how altruistic they are, how expert they are at what they do. I just wanted to weep with gratitude for having the opportunity to spend time with a few of our national heroes—seven women and four men who are pilots and intelligence officers—and an extraordinary professor, Dr. Mary Raum. I’m so glad I changed careers when I had the chance to work as a film producer. I get to tell the stories of people I meet, or stories inspired by their experiences. And I get to say ‘yes’ to projects that might otherwise not see the light of day.
“And I got to have my own parking space on a highly secure Naval Base. Okay. Just for a day. But still . . . ”