Rosies Rising: ‘It’s Our Time’

Sure, women love to dress up.

But who knew over two thousand would show up at an occasion asking them to wear blue work shirts and red-and-white polka-dot bandanas?

In two American cities with World War II histories of hiring women for the war effort — Ypsilanti, Michigan and Richmond, California — campaigns to preserve former manufacturing plants as museums and to raise awareness of women’s contributions in the workplace have taken shape as rallies in which women show up dressed as the iconic ‘Rosie the Riveter’ of wartime fame.

‘Rosie the Riveter’ was the collective name, celebrated in posters, propaganda newsreels and even a song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, of all those women — six million of them — who went to work in factories to make ships, planes and other home front manufacturing needs, taking the place of the men who’d gone off to fight. As the war effort ramped up, previously-excluded minorities of both genders were also hired at the plants, laying the groundwork for the civil rights and women’s movements of the following decades.

The importance of women’s history to the former Kaiser shipyard, in Richmond, now the home of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park, and the former Willow Run Bomber Plant in Ypsilanti, which is fundraising for a conversion to the Yankee Air Museum, seeded a friendly rivalry between the two largely blue collar towns.

Ypsilanti started it. The Save The Bomber Plant campaign made a first attempt at a World Record for “Most Rosie the Riveters” at Willow Run in October of 2013, gathering 143 Rosies. That was not enough to meet the Guinness’ requirement of 250 participants. They surpassed that requirement on March 29, 2014, when they convened 776 women in Rosie costumes at the plant. On August of the following year, The Rockin’ Rosies of Richmond beat that record by gathering 1,081 Rosies. Ypsilanti quickly took the title back, in October 2015, with 2,091 Rosies.

But on Saturday, August 13, 2016, 2265 women (and a few men) from all over the San Francisco Bay Area converged on the Richmond waterfront to best that record by 149 participants. We’ve got it now!

There had been ‘something in the air’ in the weeks before this now-historic date that suggested the turnout was going to be large. In Point Richmond, where I live, every local business pushed stacks of Rosie event postcards. It was a constant in swimming pool locker room talk. Carpool rides were offered via local online forums. So I acquired red socks and a bandana, pulled out my baggiest blue jeans and an old blue shirt, and biked down there in the freshness of the morning. A young woman walking her dog yelled out “Go get our record, girl!” noting the bandana poking out of my helmet.

It was like the good old days of mass demonstrations and unforgettable rock concerts. Or maybe the start of the shift at a really huge factory. From every direction, people streamed towards Craneway Pavilion at the end of the pier, where the blue-green waters sparkled all the way to San Francisco.

Young women and middle aged; elders with canes and walkers; multi-generational family clusters with Rosie babies; Richmond Police Officer Rosies; women of every race and culture; and yes, some men too — all wearing some version of the 1940s working woman’s uniform — strode toward the entry, where they’d be given a numbered wristband. Their outfits would be legitimized for the Guinness Record, and then it was just a mad, picture-taking, free-for-all in the gigantic hall against a backdrop of music and speeches about standing on the shoulders of giants.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt, in a blue jumpsuit and the requisite headgear, saluted the hardworking women of Richmond, including the handful present who were actual ‘Rosies’ during the war. (Several of the seats reserved for the original Rosies were — painfully — vacant.) Sue Fritzke, Deputy Superintendent of the East Bay National Park System, noted that “Many of us would not be doing whatever we’re doing today without you, the pioneer Rosies, as role models.” Everyone cheered and stood for the national anthem. It was uncomplicated. The spirit was with them.

So maybe women really do just like to dress up (and take pictures); everybody in this crowd looked fabulous in the uniform, regardless of age or shape.

Or maybe it was the zeitgeist of a nation that is very close to electing its first woman president, a nation where decades of struggle for equality have branded nearly every woman alive.

“It’s our time,” one woman responded to my question about the importance of Hillary.

“Will I vote for her?” (Another woman, brandishing a cellphone with a Bernie sticker.) “Sure: she’s not Trump. Though I wish she’d be more transparent. And I wish they’d leave us more slices of the pie.”

Maybe it was also because of the recent home robbery and assault perpetrated on Betty Reid Soskin, a docent of Rosie history at the WWII Home Front Historical Park and, at 94, the oldest active park ranger in the National Park Service. She fought back, refused to be a victim, and survived; the outpouring of support has been significant and heartfelt.

But personally, I believe it was because we’ve arrived at a time when we value ourselves and one another. It was the realization that it is really women who help and support other women, who are there for one another in the most trying times. It’s taken decades for this truth to peek through the enshrouding clouds of patriarchal deception and dissuasion. We are, finally, one another’s friends. Not rivals. Allies. There is room for us all at the table. Dressing like Rosie, in a sea of other Rosies, felt like a symbol of that.

A young girl tries out her fist at the feet of giants.
We can do it!
A woman wears a brooch holding the photo of her grandmother, who was part of the manufacturing war effort in the ‘40s.
Richmond PD Officers Y. Rogers (left) and J. Cortez, fixing their bandanas.
Three generations of Rosies outside Craneway Pavillion.
Lunching outside the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond.
Girls just wanna wear bandanas!
Let’s hear it for our male supporters!
Mugging for the Ypsilanti cause!
Sí se puede!
A sea of Rosies.
Cathy: “Vote for Hilary? Sure: she’s not Trump.”
…And she did.
Yours truly, in uniform.