Recently I spent some time vacationing in San Francisco. We stayed on Fisherman’s Wharf and did all of the usual fun tourist activities. Docked behind Pier 45 are two World War II vessels, the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, a huge warship, and the USS Pampanito, a submarine. In front of the sub, there is a photo opportunity where you can put your face in a wooden opening in an exhibit and you became “Rosie the Riviter” saying “We can do it” in a replica of the famous poster by graphic artist J. Howard Miller. There were only a few other people around that morning, but those present seemed to enjoy the activity. As I watched, I couldn’t help but wonder if young women today understood the symbolism of that iconic poster, and its lasting impact for generations of women.
There were two government public relations campaigns targeted at women during the war. The first encouraged women to enter the workforce to replace the men who were fighting abroad. It emphasized that women had a patriotic duty to help with the war effort at home. Nearly 16 million women held jobs during this time. Many worked in shipyards or steel factories building boats, planes, tanks, and weapons. Others worked in lumber yards or drove heavy construction machinery. By 1944, 16 percent of all working women worked in the defense industry.
The second government campaign occurred at the end of the war to encourage women to leave the workforce and return to working in the home so the their jobs would be available for the returning men. While many women lost their jobs or were forced out, it had been shown that women could do “men’s work,” and the number of women in the workforce never returned to pre-war levels. The social structure had been permanently changed.
Later, on my way home from California, I boarded a jumbo jet with 300 other passengers. As we settled in for take-off, the familiar message came over the loud-speaker: “This is your Captain speaking ….” What made this message somewhat different was the fact that the Captain was a woman.