Although somewhat tentative and superficial, the feminist documentary feature "Rosie the Riveter," which begins a limited engagement today at the Inner Circle, offers a provocative and amusing impression of the facts and myths surrounding the mass recruitment of women into the industrial work force during World War II. The mythical Rosie celebrated in patriotic song, story and propaganda is contrasted with the recollections of five authentic Rosies who found profitable employment in foundries, shipyards and welding and munitions plants for the duration, only to be pink-slipped at war's end to accommodate the flow of returning servicemen.
The film is organized around the testimony of its five subjects -- Wanita Allen, Gladys Belcher, Lyn Childs, Lois Weixel and Margaret Wright -- who were selected from a preliminary survey group of about 700 by producer-director Connie Field. The most entertaining footage, however, is gleaned from irresistibly dated documentation-government propaganda shorts and "March of Time" newsreels exhorting women to Do Their Bit in fatuous tones.
The preposterous extremes are exemplified by a government short intended to attract women to war work during the thick of the emergency and a "March of Time" segment intended to celebrate a return to domesticity after the war had been won. In the former, an obvious starlet, supposedly discovered on the assembly line of an aircraft factory, brushes off the question "Why did you take a defense job?" with salty impatience: "I'm too busy to answer damn fool questions right now . . . We've got a job to do, don't we?" In the latter, pompous even by "March of Time" standards, a prominent woman psychologist supposedly is encountered in her office, granting a private interview to a rapt stenographer on the theme of Woman's Rightful Place.
Ironically, these naive period relics also expose a certain naivete on the part of the filmmakers. "Rosie" reveals a modest revisionary bias. It suggests that the women who took war jobs were victims of a hoax since the society was not prepared to sustain their newfound working careers once the men returned home. However, the propaganda material itself strongly suggests that the hoax was unlikely to deceive any woman who also possessed a realistic view of the social and cultural climate.
Lois Weixel provides the sort of concluding generalization you can detect the filmmakers soliciting, usually through the answers to unheard questions that had to be demurely loaded: "I think they prepare women psychologically for whatever role the society wants women to play." Well, "they" do and "they" don't, but haven't we been schmoozing with a group of hard-working, resourceful women who played a significant role in bucking sexual stereotypes in the work place? The wistful implication that it was somehow All in Vain doesn't square with either the public or the private record.
Weixel herself joins the other witnesses in casually acknowledging that the jobs that opened up during the war were understood to be temporary, created by the military call-up of over 10 million men. They also acknowledge that it was uniquely exhilarating to have money in their pockets after the privations of the Depression and to feel an integral part of a patriotic effort. The social changes hastened by the urgency of wartime may have been interrupted when the war ended, but they had a lasting, ongoing influence.
These women in particular seem better suited to an optimistic long-term view. Why emphasize the oddly irrelevant role of regret in Weixel's lament about her welding career?" "All I wanted really was to make a very beautiful ornamental gate. Is that too much to ask?" No, but would sex discrimination in the welding trade interfere with this aspiration?
The lasting effects were detailed statistically in Richard Lingeman's informative and entertaining social history, "Don't You Know There's a War On?," published in 1970. "Within a year of V-J Day," he wrote, "more than 2,160,000 women had been trimmed from the ranks of the gainfully employed, and the percentage of women in the labor force had dipped from 36 percent to 29 percent.
"Recall that in 1940, women composed 25.5 percent of the labor force, so there was still a new increase of about 4 percent after the war. And in terms of women actually employed, the increase was from the prewar 12,000,000 to 16,600,000 by November 1946. About two-thirds of the women who went to work, during the war stayed there. In six wartime years the net gain in percentage of women in the labor force was almost equal to the increase that took place between 1900 and 1940."
Without ignoring the prejudice and injustice faced by the Rosies, Lingeman came to conclusions that seem to honor them far more than this feminist documentary: "The flesh-and-blood females who womaned the machines and rivet guns and welding torches . . . showed themselves capable of equaling or bettering the performance of men . . . They also replaced men in hundreds of job classifications never previously open to them, even preempted some jobs for themselves permanently because they could do them better. The surprise was not that they could do such jobs but the fact that anyone was surprised they could perform as well."