Revisiting Twenty Feet from Stardom for last week’s Film Friday, got me thinking about other documentaries that focus on women’s lives. And that led me to The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter , the 1980 debut film of American director Connie Field.
I first saw the film in 1986; a feminist film watched through the specific lens of my own academic work on feminist film-making. It’s also an historical documentary, so the potential for an on-going love affair with this movie was there from the beginning.
Rosie tells the story of the women who kept American manufacturing going during World War II when most of the male workforce was in the military.
When the United States joined the war in December 1941, it’s army (including the National Guard) numbered fewer than 400,000 men. By the end of WWII, over 16 million Americans had served in the military during the conflict.
The vast majority of those who either joined up or were conscripted had peacetime jobs that still needed to be done; and in addition, the war itself created massive demand in manufacturing — everything from bullets to warships.
Two and a half million women from all walks of life were persuaded by Government campaigns to take on jobs that had never before been regarded as suitable for the “fairer sex”. Nicknamed “Rosie the Riveter” or sometimes “Wanda the Welder”, they found themselves in munitions factories and shipyards working under extreme conditions, with the additional pressure of knowing that if their handiwork failed, it could mean death for servicemen overseas — including their own fathers, husbands and sons.
The clip below gives you an idea of how the government campaign was framed. The sexism is excruciating … “after a short apprenticeship a woman can operate this press as easily as a juice extractor in her own kitchen.”
The film focuses on the experience of five “Rosie’s”; setting contemporary interviews with the now older women, alongside archive footage. The effect is both exhilarating and sad.
For many, even while they were paid around half as much as male employees, it was still an opportunity to earn far more than they ever could in traditional female occupations. And over time they grew in confidence and experienced a camaraderie and pride in their work that they would never know again.
But the film makes clear that they also faced discrimination; particularly the women of colour. This intensified when it became clear just how good the women were at their jobs. Not only that, but women workers were also expected to work long hours in a factory and still go home and do the “second shift” looking after their families.
But perhaps worst of all, they were seen as “temps”, expected to meekly go back to low-wage sewing, waitressing and domestic service when the men came home.
As one of the Rosie’s, Lola Weixel said:
I was proud that I was in the war against Fascism, and I was very aware of that every day, every minute. As a woman, I was doing something that other women felt strange about; and some men were outraged and some were amused. I still felt very womanly. And whatever I was before, I felt that I could be strong and capable and responsible for other peoples’ lives. I was aware of that then.I thought that all this was going to continue after the war. I thought that this was just a prelude to a lifetime of productive work. It was a shock to me when I realized that that was not going to be so.
After the war, when it became clear that many women wanted or needed to remain in the jobs they had done so well, the Government propaganda machine went into overdrive, with pseudo-science its main weapon. Suddenly, women who went out to work were guilty of terrible child neglect. The country was in danger of an epidemic of delinquency — which could only be solved by women returning to their traditional nurturing role!
My main criticism was always that the five Rosie interviewees were filmed without real context; they were such intelligent, articulate women I wanted to know more about their post-war lives.
But a film can’t do everything, and what it does do is shine a light on a really important moment in women’s lives. And it does so with compassion, intelligence, humour and some really catchy music. Cue Rosie the Riveter (1942; Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb)
About Film Friday
Sarah at Art Expedition, and Darren, The Arty Plantsman have initiated this great new blogging project. You can find out more and see their chosen films for the week by visiting the latest post by Darren and Sarah.