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The Culture Corner

Rosie the Riveter and the PTSD Problem She Helped Create For White Male America

Wars tend to produce unintended consequences, and a couple of the big ones from World War II were particularly tough on old-school white guys.

Women and colored folks, two groups who had traditionally been expected to remain subservient to white guys, got a taste of what life could be if the rules were modified.

Turned out they liked it, and while it would be rash to say the old rules have since been abandoned, it’s certainly a different and better world in 2020 than it was in 1945.

That may not seem like a very profound observation, and it’s certainly not a new one. We still might pause for a moment to acknowledge it, because we just lost one of those who helped nudge this revolution forward.

Rosalind Palmer Walter, who died Wednesday in New York at the age of 95, spent several years of her youth as Rosie the Riveter, symbol of all the good things that could happen when we admitted that rivets didn’t care which gender was driving them in.

After graduating from the upper-class Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Conn., Walter stepped off her path to Vassar or Smith and took a job as as riveter at the Vought Aircraft Company in Stratford, Conn. She helped assemble F4U Corsairs, a fighter-bomber particularly suited for deployment on aircraft carriers.

Because she came from the monied class, her gig made it to newspaper columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, who covered that class. His story about her caught the eye of songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, who turned it into the catchy pop tune “Rosie The Riveter.”

While none of the multiple versions by the Four Vagabonds, Kay Kyser or others cracked the charts, the song achieved some primitive version of going viral, and by the time Norman Rockwell drew a Rosie for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1944, “Rosie the Riveter” was shorthand for the multimillions of women whose bonnet had become a hardhat.

Walter was probably not the original Rosie, a name some historians trace to Rosina “Rosie” Bonavita. By the time Walter started, Bonavita was already riveting fuselages at the Convair plant in San Diego.

And before that, a Canadian campaign to recruit women factory workers featured one Veronica Foster as “Ronnie, the Bren Gun Girl.” That name doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as easily, which may be why there’s no song about Ronnie — though interestingly, she was herself a professional singer.

In any case, the U.S. government’s campaign to recruit women succeeded nicely. It turned out that women were not at all unhappy to take jobs that paid more than the secretarial and clerical positions to which almost all women had traditionally been steered or shoved.

This hiring wave came, naturally, with an expiration date. Just as soldiers were drafted “for the duration,” women were hired in factories for the same.

This iconic World War II worker-encouragement poster did not reference Rosie, though it has often in subsequent years been used to illustrate Rosie’s story.

They were temps, and by 1944 the same U.S. government that urged Rosie to rivet in 1942 was telling her to start clipping recipes again, because the menfolk would be marching home and needing those jobs back.

A good number of Rosies either listened or had no choice. The percentage of women working outside the home fell from 36% in 1944 to 28% in 1947, and those who did continue working often downshifted to “women’s work,” which is perfectly honorable except that it usually paid a lot less.

This has led to some debate over the long-term impact of Rosie the Riveter, with skeptics arguing that she didn’t have much impact at all — that once the war ended, the social order returned to its pre-war norm.

And it seems to be true that when the war was over, Rosie didn’t surge into the workplace.

But her daughters did.

By the early 1970s, millions of women were asking why they shouldn’t get a shot at “men’s work,” from auto assembly lines to doctoring and lawyering, and they had no stronger argument than the still-vivid memory of Rosie building those Corsairs.

A relative handful of Rosies did, by the way, keep riveting. Elinor Otto of Long Beach, Calif., built airplanes until she was 95.

Rosalind Walter in her philanthropic years.

Rosalind Walter did not. Having been born to money and later marrying more money, she segued to a career in philanthropy. She donated heavily to Public Television, the Museum of Natural History and educational institutions.

The airplane manufacturing industry, while doubtless grateful for Walter’s service and her promotional value in the Rosie campaign, was probably not sorry she didn’t make riveting a career.

While she was on the line, she became an outspoken advocate of women and men receiving equal pay for the same job.

That idea, you may have noticed, has taken an annoyingly long time to even partly catch on.

But it hasn’t gone away, and neither have some of the other revolutionary doings that incubated in Rosie the Riveter’s world. A number of World War II factories put black, white and Latino workers together, for instance, which sounds like no big deal now and was often quite the big deal then.

Rosie’s run, while relatively short, gave women a taste of what could be — the same way experiencing the mostly desegregated societies of Europe gave black American soldiers a taste of life without subservience.

When black folks came back from the war, they started thinking maybe they should be able to buy the same houses as white folks, go to the same schools, drink from the same water fountains.

And women started thinking, hmmm, why shouldn’t we have the same choices for our lives and careers as the guy for whom we’re fixing dinner?

In the Old America, those kinds of notions were unthinkable, a path to chaos and maybe even a world where white guys didn’t get to make all the decisions.

We haven’t reached that world yet. But that’s the path we’ve been on, and for some folks it’s still terrifying.

That’s why they call them unintended consequences.

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David Hinckley

David Hinckley

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David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”