Film Friday: The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter

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Movie poster: The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. Image: IMBd

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!

I’ve seen The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter a few times; though not recently. It is available to stream, so that’s likely to change soon.

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.

#filmfriday

 

 

37 thoughts on “Film Friday: The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter

  1. I hear you Su. Unbelievable, women can do a lot of things and they’re very good at it, surprise, surprise.
    I recent saw Gorillas in the Mist – the story of Diane Fossey. It was very moving.
    Leslie

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Happened in Britain, too. “Foyle’s War” shows that and is a most wonderful series. Used to be on Netflix, but no longer. Fortunately, we have all the episodes. It must have been so frustrating to have people expecting you to go back to the home once you had a chance to be out. And then there’s the flip side of having people look down on women who stay home and “don’t work.” The movie sounds quite interesting. Thanks for the heads-up and have a great weekend.

    janet

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lots of Rosie the Riveters around Detroit, aka the Arsenal of Democracy. I just checked and half of the 42,000 workers were women at the sprawling Ford plant in suburban Detroit that built 4 engine bombers. Their exclusion from the post war workforce is similar to the fate of the women baseball players in the very good 1990s film, League of Their Own.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true. One of the articles I read about Rosie, mentioned how working in the industrial plants gave many of the women their first experience of strong trade unions, and that in itself was influential in their later lives. Although the unions don’t seem to have had their backs when the men returned.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds like a good one to check out! I recently watched a documentary on the author Margaret Atwood and another on Hillary Clinton. Both quite good. You would think that I would want fantasy movies right now but I’m actually somehow enjoying the documentaries. And I’m finding myself needing to be inspired by the stories :-).

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Definitely one to try and watch. But what an annoying and condescending little clip! I had a friend (died last year) who worked as a welder in the shipyards of Rotterdam (only woman there – after the war). Even in the twentieth-first century, when she would tell people about it, their mouths would drop open in astonishment. We are capable of so much more than we imagine (providing you want to be a welder, riveter … whatever!).

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’ve never heard of the movie, but have certainly heard of Rosie the Riveter and the roles women played both on the homefront and in the military during WWII. I will have to look for the movie. Thanks, Su!

    Like

  7. My aunt was a Rosie, working in upstate New York. She had tales to tell, including her reaction to the end of the war and her stopping work. But she’d met and worked with an engineer at that plant who became her husband. Later in life she continued working, partly based on her record during the war. So her story wasn’t as devastating as some. Thanks for the clips!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Looking forward to seeing more of this – the first video left me with a great quote
    “In an individual basis – who wants to go to war?”
    So true

    Really interesting post – lots to chew on

    Like

  9. I haven’t seen this one yet but really want to! It reminds me a bit of a novel that I’ve read last year “Manhattan Beach” where women worked in ammunition factories and the heroine fought her way to become a female diver – very inspiring! I still can’t believe that people, that is men, tried everything to dissuade women from working as soon as the war ended. Did they really think that was plausible? And yet there’s still so much left to achieve. I wonder how many more generations it will take??

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! I’ve just checked the reviews of Manhattan Beach and added it to my request list at the library (which will hopefully be open soon).

      It is amazing that the post-war propaganda was so effective, but even if the women themselves didn’t believe it, you could guarantee that their husbands, mothers-in-law and all sorts of other people would. I think the most powerful threat you can hold over a mother is to tell her she’s hurting her children.

      I hope you do get a chance to see Rosie.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Oh, how lovely that you added the book to your request list! I think it belonged to my top 3 that year. 😊
        Our libraries have opened on Monday here but I’m still a bit hesitant to go since they’re full at the best of times and now they might be bursting with people! 😂 Though I think they’re likely to have some restrictions in place maybe I’ll risk it at the end of the week or next one. 😉

        Liked by 2 people

          • Just had a look online – apparently people are only able to borrow media they’ve requested online beforehand, no perusing the aisles and hunt for books which is my favourite way of looking for new stuff. Also opening times are very reduced which only means longer waiting in line… I think I’ll just drop my borrowed books and dvds for now. Luckily I still have quite a lot of books at home that I haven’t read yet because new books from the libraries always kept me from reading them! 😂

            Liked by 2 people

          • I think that’s a good idea. Libraries are not the same if you can’t browse and just enjoy the space.
            I do worry about people for whom the local library is a sanctuary. Auckland libraries have traditionally been incredibly welcoming to homeless people who are never (as far as I can tell) excluded and are able to use the toilets, drinking fountains etc as well as having a warm, comfortable, free place to hang out.

            Liked by 2 people

          • It’s the same here with libraries being sanctuaries for homeless people, and I’m not sure they’re welcomed like before, especially since toilets are being closed at the libraries and also all the sitting spaces. 😦 The only good thing is that it’s not winter where they need these places much more than now.

            Liked by 2 people

  10. Thanks for this Sue. Men might have thought they could put women back in their place after the war but things would never be the same again. Women learnt they were there for more than just pandering to men. Halleluja!
    Have you seen Gaylene Preston’s documentary, War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us? It has a handful of NZ women who served one way or the other in WW2, all in their 70s – 90s just sitting and telling their stories. Beautiful!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Wendy. Yes, I have seen it, and found it really powerful and moving.
      Gaylene Preston is one of my heroes. Her debut feature was the subject of my thesis, and she was incredibly kind and helpful when I was writing it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This sounds fascinating Su. The same story played out here of course, our women had been doing these jobs for up to six years and found it really hard to adjust afterwards. And unlike in the US there was the constant threat of your factory being bombed too. Many young women were sent to remote farms to provide labour and some were treated very badly.

    Like

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