- On March 31, 1941, 25 women began their skilled jobs at a Vultee airplane factory, a factory making planes for the U.S. Army Air Corps.
- The women completed their training and were scheduled to start work on April 1, 1941. But factory managers thought people would think it was an April Fools Day joke so they had the women start on March 31, 1941.
- In the early 1940s, factory managers did not want to hire women. They didn’t think they could perform the skilled jobs. Instead, they applied for waivers for their male workers so they could not be drafted into the military. Eventually, draft boards denied most of these requests. They told factories to hire women.
- From December 1941 to December 1942, the number of women employed in defense industries increased from 4.8 million to 11.3 million.
- By the end of 1944, about 37 percent of all workers in defense industries were women. At the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California, 70 percent of their workers were women. About six million women, all represented by the iconic Rosie the Riveter, went to work at factories making war materials.
- Among female factory workers, 60 percent of them were 35 years or older. Only one-half of one percent of women factory workers were between the ages of 25 and 34.
- After the war ended, many jobs held by women during the war were given to men returning from war. But there were still more women factory workers after World War II than before the war.
- Fast forward 80 years and women are still riveting, welding and performing many types of skilled factory jobs once held by men only.
STORY by Judith Stanford Miller, Redwood Learn editor
April 1, 2021 – In 1941 when 25 women completed training at a Vultee airplane factory, their first day of work was scheduled for April 1. A group of women would join men on a factory assembly line for the first time. But factory managers thought people would think it was an April Fools Day joke seeing women working in a factory so their first day of work was moved up to March 31, 1941.
Fast forward 80 years and women are still riveting, welding and performing many highly skilled factory jobs. Known collectively as Rosie the Riveter, women who went to work in factories in the 1940s paved the way for future generations of women. But women went to work because of the potential to earn a high wage and to serve their country’s war effort. They did not go to work to make a point about women being able to do a man’s job. That aspect came later as women proved they were capable workers and wanted to remain working at factories.
Early 1940s – Rosie goes to work
In the early 1940s, factory managers resisted hiring women because they felt women would not be able to perform as well as men. Instead, when their workers were drafted into the military during World War II, factory managers asked draft boards for waivers to allow their male workers to remain at the factory. Eventually, the demand for men in the military was so high, draft boards denied the vast majority of waiver requests and told managers to hire women to fill the void left by male workers going off to war.
Reluctantly, factories began hiring, training and employing women. Women quickly proved themselves. And in some jobs, such as electrical assembly and riveting, women excelled because of their small hands and ability to fit into small spaces inside airplane wings. In addition, women demonstrated a deep commitment to their jobs as they learned how important their job was to win the war so their brothers, husbands and sons could come home.
By the Numbers
By the end of 1942, the total workforce was 59.6 million people. That number was an increase of 3.9 million people from 1941. And of that the total of 59.6 million people in the workforce in 1942, 15.5 million were women. That number is 1.7 million more women in the workforce in 1942 than in 1941.
And from December 1941 to December 1942, the number of women employed in defense industries increased from 4.8 million to 11.3 million. By the end of 1942, 29 percent of people employed in defense industries for the war effort were women, an increase from 13.4 percent at the end of 1941. These intrepid women blazed a trail in the 1940s and for generations to come.
By the end of 1944, about 37 percent of all workers in defense industries were women. Depending on the industry, the percent of women varied from about 22 percent in the iron and steel industries to about 70 percent at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California where more than 700 Liberty Ships were built from 1942-1945. At the shipyards, Rosie the Riveter had a sister – Rosie the Welder.
It’s fascinating to study the ages of women (about six million) who went to work in factories. The following stats from the book, Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II by Penny Colman (pp.106-107) tell the story:
Ages 35 and older: 60 percent
Ages 20-24 years: 22 percent
Ages 14-19 years: 17.2 percent (Note: Child labor laws were suspended during World War II)
Ages 25-34 years: one-half of one percent (0.5 percent)
Congressional Gold Medal
Redwood Learn Video: March 26, 2021 event with CAF Airbase Georgia and the Kennesaw State University History and Holocaust Museum
Now signed into law, the Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2019 recognizes the six million women who went to work in factories making materials for the war effort.
Sponsored by Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) in U.S. Senate and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) in the U.S. House of Representatives, the law authorizes the U.S. Mint to create a Congressional Gold Medal to represent all of the Rosies. Once designed and awarded, the medal will reside in Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Mae Krier, 95, a Rosie who worked at Boeing’s Seattle airplane factory making B-17 and B-29 bombers during the war, and Phyllis Gould, one of the first six women hired at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, both worked tirelessly to advocate for the bill to pass the House and the Senate after it was introduced in March 2019.
Mae lives near Philadelphia so she traveled many times to Washington D.C. to lobby legislators in the House and Senate. Her work to have Rosies recognized for their contributions during World War II goes back almost 40 years. When her children began asking her about her Boeing years, she decided she owed it to the millions of other Rosies to have their work honored.
In a recent phone interview with Mae about the Congressional Gold Medal, she said they had about 29 senators supporting the bill for a long time. But last year as the pandemic raged, Mae began sewing Rosie masks instead of bandannas. The news media heard about her effort and her story went viral. She received 5,000 requests for free masks.
After that publicity, Mae said they soon had enough senators to pass the legislation. When it passed in the U.S. Senate, the bill had 76 cosponsors. When it passed in the House, the bill had 293 cosponsors. It was signed into law on Dec. 3, 2020. Mae and Phyllis are currently talking with the U.S. Mint about the design of the Medal.
Check back for updates on the release of the Rosie the Riveter Congressional Gold Medal, which may be as early as this fall.
- When did the first group of women begin performing skilled jobs at a factory making defense products for World War II?
- About how many Rosies went to work in factories during WWII?
- About what percent of all defense workers at factories were women by the end of 1944?
- What age group of women made up 60 percent of all women who went to work in factories during WWII?
- What age group of women had the lowest percent of women who went to work in factories during WWII?
- Why were women hired at factories during WWII?
- Why were women motivated to accept jobs at factories during WWII?
- How did the six million Rosies pave the way for future generations of women?
- Through the link provided to the right, read the text of the bill. Write a summary of the bill.
- How does a bill become law? What steps are required? Research and write a summary.