On the iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter, the woman working in a factory on the home front during World War II rolls up her sleeve to proudly reveal her muscular arm.
But Crena Anderson, a real-life riveter, never showed off when she went to work to make airplanes during the war. Her husband was fighting; her brother had been killed in the Army Air Forces; she had taken only a short leave of absence from her seven-day-a-week job as a riveter to have a baby. She was worried about finding a trustworthy babysitter, about earning money to support her family, about doing her job well to ensure the safety of the men on the front — and about her arms.
“It made me big muscles,” she said. “I was ashamed to wear a short-sleeved dress. I always wore three-quarter-length sleeves. I looked like a man.”
Anderson, now 89, and four other female former factory workers reminisced Sunday about the challenges and opportunities of women who worked during the war. They now refer to themselves as Rosies.
Dorothy McMann, 89, talked about the novelty of coming from rural Augusta County, Va., to work as a riveter in an aircraft factory in Baltimore. “It was something I never dreamed of doing, but after I learned how, I loved it,” she said. She recalled switching her dresses for coveralls and putting her hair up in a cap. “I liked kind of rough stuff anyway.”
Ruth Kline Staples had a copy of a 1943 magazine. Her photograph was on the cover, showing her shoveling dirt at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad yard where she worked during the war.
Vienna Magliano Hurt, 89, and Evie Martindale, 91, joined them in sharing memories.
The five, who traveled from as far as Akron, Ohio, to attend two events in the Washington area Sunday, were marking the launch of a nationwide program for the country’s remaining living Rosies.
The new program, run by the organization Thanks! Plain and Simple, encourages cities to pick a project that Rosies can do with younger generations. The goal is twofold: to educate young people about women’s roles in World War II, and to involve the Rosies, many of whom have become isolated as they have aged, in community projects.
At the center of the Thanks! program is a long list of suggested intergenerational activities. Rosies, who became experts at rationing during the war, might teach communities about conservation. Young dance troupes might spend time with Rosies, then create a routine interpreting their stories. Rosies can participate in quilt making and other forms of art. They can help communities plant modern-day Victory gardens.
Each project on the list comes with instructions, photographs and anecdotes from communities that have tried them.
Thanks! was founded five years ago by Anne Montague, who has been conducting test runs of the intergenerational activities in numerous communities, especially in her home state of West Virginia, in preparation for the national push.
Montague, 75, is a generation younger than the Rosies. She remembers the honking cars and her grandparents’ elation on V-J Day, when she was very young, but she does not remember much about what her own mother did during the war. As a child, she just knew that her mother went off each day to a place she called “the war factory.”
After her mother died in 1983, Montague wished she had discussed those wartime experiences with her. So she started interviewing other Rosies.
“To go in and just interview the women with a tape recorder was really inadequate,” she said. “Their communities should really know them, and should know them firsthand.”
So she started doing projects.
Montague has interacted with more than 200 Rosies.
The American Rosie the Riveter Association estimates that more than 6 million women worked in war industries, helping produce nearly 300,000 airplanes, more than 100,000 tanks, more than 44 billion rounds of ammunition and other materiel.
Montague believes that the women’s movement a generation later owes its roots to the Rosies. Most left their factory jobs when the men returned from the front. But Montague says they taught their daughters the importance of being self-sufficient, and those daughters took up the cause of women’s rights.
“You know, they said about the men, ‘How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?’ ” Montague said. “What I say about the women is, ‘How ya gonna keep ’em knitting with yarn after they’ve seen Lockheed?’ ”
Magliano Hurt agreed that the war experience changed the way her generation of women and those that followed approached work.
“When we heard that the war had broken out and they were calling for women to come forward, I’d never dreamed of being in the workforce,” she said. She was a teenager in a tiny coal-mining town in West Virginia, and she thought her strict father would never let her and her sister out of the house at night, let alone allow them to go to Norfolk to repair ships that had been torpedoed.
But her father, an Italian immigrant who fought for the United States in World War I and was deeply patriotic, sent her off to Virginia right away to do her part. When Thanksgiving came, he even sent the girls’ brother on a train all the way to Norfolk to bring them a home-cooked holiday dinner.
“When I came home, people sort of looked at me like, ‘What kind of woman does a man’s work? Women can roll bandages.’ Really, nobody wanted to hear about it,” Magliano Hurt said. But the experience of working had expanded her worldview far beyond the mining camp. “Being a Rosie the Riveter gave me confidence in myself in working and dealing with other people of all ages and people of all classes.”
She and Anderson spoke Sunday at a ceremony at the National World War II Memorial honoring veterans of all generations.
Anderson, like the other Rosies, said that even when the work was hazardous — she lost some of her hearing because of the noise and once was sent back to work with just a Band-Aid after a co-worker accidentally drilled her ankle — she thought she was simply doing what she needed to do.
“Today there is a growing awareness and a pride in our deep commitment and the quality and enormous quantity of our work,” she said.
Magliano Hurt offered a message at the ceremony. “Freedom is very, very precious. It can’t be protected alone. It takes working together,” she said.
Montague said that she hopes that a similar spirit of cooperation motivates communities nationwide to honor their Rosies.
“It’s really about women and the strength of women,” she said. “They had a phrase, ‘We pull better when we pull together.’ That’s something we got from the Rosies. I hope people around the country pull together to meet these Rosies and work with them and know them before they die.”