The young filmmakers, in their blue jeans and Bass loafers, and the older women activists, in matching dresses and jackets without polished boots, were standing around a short, solidly built woman, in a blue print dress and black flats, with a red tam jauntily angled on her brown hair. Lola Weixel, one of the millions of women who joined the assembly lines during World War II, and one of five women in the documentary about those days, "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter," was meeting her sisterly descendants and groupies yesterday.
"This used to scare me terribly," said Weixel, 59, pointing to the wine-sipping group in the Kennedy Center's Atrium, which had just seen the one-hour film. "But now I have come to love it." And, stood like a center-stage pro, receiving zealous praises, along with the filmmaker, Connie Field, and the screening sponsors, the National Organization for Women's Media Project, the National Women's Political Caucus, Federal Employed Women, the National Council of Negro Women and the National Endowment for the Arts. n
"Rosie" is a historically rich look at the 18 million pioneering women who assumed the traditionally male jobs in factories and shipyards during the Second World War, taking its story from the personal memories of five women and the contemporary newsreels and government-produced films. In its broadest sense, "Rosie" looks at the role of women at this critical fork-in-the-road period, when women's attitudes toward work and self-definition were changing more quickly than the outside world. Women were encouraged to "do their bit," or, as one government film shows, were ridiculed for staying in bed and shopping.
However, when the war was won, women were expected to resume their prewar places. "Rosie" includes several newsreels from that postwar period, one with an interview of a woman who says she loved her factory job but now, she says happily, "I will be busy at home." A male narrator says, "good for you." More footage, showing children with bruised knees, blames family problems on the financial independence of women. In the screening room at the American Film Institute yesterday, hisses greeted several of these clips.
But "Rosie," which will have a commercial run at the Inner Circle in the spring is also the story of five women who saw the war effort as a way to express their patriotism and to leave their unskilled jobs for a real trade and a real wage. Weixel was a 19-year-old in Brooklyn, a young bride, who went to work as a welder. In the film she stands outside an old factory and tells how the foreman locked her out when she organized a union. "He said we weren't his gals any more," she explains. The other women discuss other problems such as racial discrimination, the lack of child care, and occupational safety, all juxtaposed with songs, posters and film claiming all was rosy.
Weixel has gotten over her mixed emotions about the film project. "It was good because I realized that someone was interested in something that was important to me," said Weixel. "But I did a lot of crying. At my age you look back on life and wonder if you did any good. And then, I am not beautiful, I am ordinary, so I didn't want to see myself on the screen. I didn't go to the first screening in New York."
After four years of wartime factory work, she, like her co-stars in the film, couldn't find jobs to use their new skills. For the last 21 years she has been a full-time proofreader in a law office, now working at former senator Jacob Javits' firm.
But when she takes walks with her husband, she looks wistfully at iron ornamental gates, she said. "There's a great deal of joy in using your body at work, I miss that." And, as people like Mary Crisp, former co-chair of the Republican National Committee, and May Thompson Evans, who was a deputy director of the War Manpower Commission, stopped by to talk to Weixel, she reminded people she had to catch the shuttle back to New York. "I have to be at work at 9:30 a.m.," she said, smiling.