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, an estimated  8 to 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, the stories of 48 of these women are being told in their own voices. And on April 3, a number of Rosies will be at New York University’s Tamiment Library, to present a new collection of filmed oral histories at the Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives: “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project.”  The real Rosies, now in their 80s and 90s, will join with filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly of Spargel Productions (NYC), who have been interviewing and filming ‘Rosies’ over the past two years, along with executive producer, writer, and playwright Elizabeth Hemmerdinger. (Hemmerdinger is a founding board member of, and frequent contributor to, WVFC.)

“They don’t talk just about walking into the factory,” Hemmerdinger has said. “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, bring a lifetime of experience and perspective to a transformational time in the lives of these pioneering industrial workers when they gave the United States a new icon of strength, determination, and reliability on their way to changing the perception of working women. Each story is longer and more detailed than the promo below—and each is riveting.

“This intimate look at the lives of women who joined the war effort is an invaluable cultural and historical document,” said Michael Nash, head of the Tamiment Library. “Real-life ‘Rosies’ describe their experience in what had been traditional men’s jobs in the war industries—most notably airplane and shipbuilding 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 highlights of the riches contained in the archive:

• Angeline Fleming was born in Indianola, Mississippi, in 1919. Raised in a two-room house with a dirt floor, Angeline picked cotton before receiving her teaching certificate, and taught for a year in the segregated schools of rural Mississippi. During the war, she moved to Detroit with her brothers, where she got work as a riveter on the B-29 bomber for the Ford Motor Company. In the factory, Angeline noticed that most people would self-segregate into working groups. She later married and followed her husband to California. He worked  in the shipyards, but she was unable to get a high-paying factory job there because of prejudice toward black people at that time. She and her husband returned to Detroit in 1943. On her 90th birthday, the city of Detroit honored Angeline for her work as a “Detroit Rosie the Riveter.”




Marion Yagoda (right) 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 and worked on the B-26 Marauder airplane.






The project started out as background research to enhance Hemmerdinger’s play We Can Do It!,  written as part of her film MFA 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 on real-life Rosies there was in archival audio or video footage.

“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 WW II 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 WW II, 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.

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.

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.

Join the conversation

  • Ann Buttenwieser April 5, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    Great Job Elizabeth!