On May 31, 1997 Rosie “the Riveter” Monroe passed away at the age of 77. A cultural icon throughout World War II, Rosie the Riveter symbolized the mobilization of Americans to support the war effort. She is still a powerful cultural symbol of women’s empowerment in the workplace, and the inevitable inspiration for many a feminist Halloween costume amidst a sea of sexy nurses and playboy bunnies.
Although the cultural symbol of Rosie the Riveter preceded and extended past Monroe’s career, her life story captures the “We Can Do It!” attitude for which Rosie in known. A young widow and mother of two, Rose Monroe worked building b-29 bombers at a factory in Michigan. After appearing in a film as the famous Rosie and gaining brief national fame, Monroe worked as a cab driver, ran a beauty shop, and even founded her own construction company. If her gender-role-transgressive resume isn’t enough, Monroe achieved her lifelong dream of gaining a pilot’s license at the age of 50, and lived to her late 70s in her home in Indiana. A rich and impressive life for a remarkable woman.
Nevertheless, it would be a betrayal of the values for which Rosie the Riveter is known not to interrogate the harder questions surrounding gender and work her image brings to mind. Rosie is, after all, a symbol of changing social norms and gender roles in the workplace.
Monroe never earned a cent for the role that made her famous. This exploitation of women in the workplace was and continues to be all too common. After the war Monroe, like many other women working factory jobs, left industrial work, making way for the men who “rightfully” belonged (and who reaped higher wages for the same work). This wage gap persists today, with women earning 77 cents to each dollar earned by a men. Whether this gap is a result of overt discrimination or more subtle social pressure is subject to debate, but the immense social and economic pressure to return home and marry felt by women factory workers post-WWII resonates today.
Finally, I can’t neglect to point out that while choosing to enter the workforce is and has been a legitimately empowering choice for some women, we should be careful not to erase the labor of women of color and low-income women from our historical narratives. Surely domestic and service work are as valid forms of labor as industrial factory work.
As we remember Rosie the Riveter and the inspirational symbol she is to women entering male-dominated spheres and occupations, we should further her legacy by continuing to question norms of gender and labor. Thank you, Rosie!