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California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

Memorial Gives Rosie the Riveter Her Due

October 10, 2000|MELISSA LAMBERT

Rosie the Riveter was ahead of her time. Now, more than 50 years after the denim-clad, tool-wielding World War II propaganda icon first flexed her muscles, the rest of the nation seems to be catching up.

Last week, the Senate passed a bill to establish a Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond, Calif., the first national site honoring the role of the home front during World War II. The Northern California city was home to four of the largest and most productive shipyards during the war, and war-driven industry pushed the town's wartime population from 23,000 to 100,000.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) sponsored the House legislation-- approved unanimously--and Sen. Dianne Feinstein helped push through the Senate version. Miller said he is hopeful that President Clinton will sign it before a dedication ceremony for the memorial scheduled Saturday.

"By sending this legislation to the president, we honor all those who served, in uniform and in coveralls, wearing helmets or bandannas, hoisting a machine gun or a welder's torch," Miller said. "We also honor the city of Richmond and all those who came to this city, labored here on behalf of the war effort in the 1940s, and stayed to build a great city."

Relatively few women worked in highly skilled jobs like riveting during World War II. Unlike Rosie, a government- created figure, most of the 19 million women employed during the war worked in clerical jobs or as volunteers in war-related programs. Of the 225,000 women who labored in shipbuilding, most were regarded only as temporary workers and relegated to the less skilled job of welding. During the war, women held just 4.4% of war jobs classified as skilled and a far smaller percentage of management positions.

Yet all of the women who labored in the shipyards during the war were pioneers.

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One of those pioneers was Ludie Mitchell, a Richmond resident who at 18 signed up to work as a welder in the Richmond shipyards. She worked side by side with male riveters, but Mitchell, now 75, says she did not know any women riveters.

Like most of her female counterparts, after World War II ended Mitchell left her welding job. She went on to raise a family and to work at the post office, she said, and seldom thought of her part in the war effort. Several years ago, however, Mitchell's granddaughter approached her about speaking to her high school class about her wartime experiences.

The Richmond City Council, meanwhile, had for several years been discussing the idea of a World War II home front memorial. The council began moving forward on the project and in 1998 sought Miller's help. The congressman, who was born in Richmond and was familiar with its shipyards, is the ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, which oversees federal parks.

In May, Mitchell found herself addressing the committee about her wartime experiences, repeating to the panel much of what she had told her granddaughter's high school class.

"Welding was hard work, but I didn't know at the time that it was hard work," she said, recalling her testimony. "We just did what we had to do to bring the boys home."

She said she went into the job knowing nothing about welding--she wasn't even sure what it was. "I couldn't set the machine on the first day, and I started crying," she said in an interview. "I didn't know what I was doing and felt I was in way over my head."

After completing a course, she eventually was certified at the profession's highest level. "My welding got to be really pretty, and after a while they let me weld on the outside [of the ship]," Mitchell said.

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The Rosie the Riveter memorial features a 441-foot-long pathway, the length of the ships once constructed in Richmond's shipyards. The pathway, positioned along the waterfront, contains markers about life in World War II-era Richmond and quotes from women who worked on the home front across America. Three large structures, one evoking a ship's hull, another the stack of a ship and a third the bow of a ship, are also placed along the path.

In addition, a former Ford assembly plant nearby has been renovated and turned into a visitor's center. A World War II ship, the Red Oak Victory, is also being revamped and, upon completion, will be docked within the national park.

The park is primarily funded by private donations, and the bill stipulates that all government funds be matched by local funds.

In the immediate postwar years, women across America returned to more traditional roles that emphasized home and family more than ever before. Yet, the ideal of Rosie the Riveter set the stage for the reentry years later of women into the workplace.

"Her strong, capable, tool-toting image lingered in the nation's collective memory," David Kennedy, a history professor at Stanford University, later wrote. "It helped inspire a later generation of women to challenge sexual stereotypes and to demand what Rosie never had: economic freedom as well as family security, a child and a paycheck, a place of work and place to call home, too, not one or the other. Rosie thus went on doing her cultural work well after she laid down her rivet gun."

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