by Carolyn Galerstein
Cut, no. 32, April 1987, pp. 20-22
One of the most remarkable social phenomena of the twentieth century was the participation of U.S. women as factory workers manufacturing war materiel during World War II. Hollywood filmmakers did not ignore this phenomenon during the war years. A number of films specifically encouraged women to work in war plants. However, most studies of Hollywood's portrayal of women have overlooked this group of films.
In the first six months after Pearl Harbor, an estimated 750,000 women applied for work in war plants, but only about 80,000 were employed.[open notes in new window] However, with the depletion of the male labor supply and the rapid expansion of war industries, an intensive recruitment of women workers began. Hollywood films became part of that campaign. William Chafe has pointed out:
Rosie, who first appeared on the cover of the May 29, 1943 Saturday Evening Post, was depicted by Norman Rockwell with a perky but proud face and the muscular arms of a stevedore, a "buxom, long-lashed heroine in coveralls." She decorated innumerable posters, and magazines and newspapers included feature stories about her real-life counterparts. The media praised, glamorized and romanticized Rosie, and nowhere more so than in Hollywood films made during the war years. However, this glorification of the woman factory worker was intended only as a means of censuring a temporary adequate labor force. As Leila J. Rupp states,
In 1941 the newly-created War Activities Committee of the film industry exhorted Hollywood studios to "create morale 'vitamins.'" The studios responded with films portraying the production front. In WINGS FOR THE EAGLE (1942), Ann Sheridan works in the personnel office of an aircraft factory, while all production workers are men. Although early films show women working in war plants, by emphasizing the comedic aspects of their activities in such films as BLONDIE FOR VICTORY (1942) and SWING SHIFT MAISIE (1943), they indicate how inadequately Hollywood appreciated the need for women's participation in the war effort. Even in the non-comic films, the reasons for women joining the work force were often portrayed as more or less frivolous. In HERS TO HOLD (1943) Deanna Durbin plays a rich young woman who becomes a riveter in order to be near the man she loves, HE'S MY GUY (1943) sends a vaudeville team to work in a defense plant, but the plot revolves around the domestic squabbles of the married entertainers.
Several films extolled the virtues of noble women supporting the war effort by keeping the home fires burning, loyally awaiting the return of sons or husbands. In TENDER COMRADE, an example of the "home front" film, Ginger Rogers joins a group of working war wives who live together as a result of the housing shortage.
A prime illustration of women's traditional role of maintaining the sanctity of home and family is SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944). Claudette Colbert, the quintessential middle-class wife, writes nightly to her husband in the service. Impelled by a desire to assist in the war effort, she trains as a welder. A voice-over recites her diary entry intended for her soldier-husband:
(Not just a welder, a lady welder.) But, other than in a five-to-ten-second scene, Colbert is not shown working in the factory. Her wartime work is an unrealistic, relatively pleasant interlude while she awaits the resumption of her true role as wife and full-time mother. Melva Joyce Baker has commented,
The home front film also exhorted women to marry servicemen and have babies. In THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU (1944) Eleanor Parker works as a parachute folder. Although the film depicts defense work as important to the women's lives, it concentrates on romance, marriage and pregnancy. The film glosses over the problems which working mothers encounter in real life, as seen when Parker easily engages a nice old lady to care for her baby. It is understood that this is a temporary arrangement, that the husband will return, Parker will no longer have to work, and the happy, traditional family unit will be restored.
In I LOVE A SOLDIER (1944) Paulette Goddard spends all day working in a shipyard and a good part of the night dancing with servicemen. She considers both activities her contribution to the war effort and ends her dates by saying, "I have to get up early in the morning and build ships," a statement which by this time audiences can easily accept as a standard North American situation. In contrast to those earlier films which portrayed the working woman in rather frivolous fashion, the women in this film not only appear serious and competent, they are the only visible factory workers, obviously working to earn a living rather than as an incidental accompaniment to some other purpose. Goddard, some other kind of worker before the war, and her friend, a former teacher, seem more adept at repairing a house than the soldiers. "You forget," Goddard reminds them, I'm a welder, I can mend anything."
Nevertheless an unstated assumption persists: Regardless of competence, the women are not as important as the soldiers they love. The men could reach the rank of General; the highest rank that the women could attain was Mrs.. And, predictably, marriage is the rank to which Goddard ultimately aspires. The film's climax, that of her decision to marry, confirms Hollywood's message: While the working women temporarily support the fighting men by helping to build ships and planes, their principal and permanent role is to support the men through marriage and child bearing.
The three films which most effectively publicize the importance of women factory workers are MEET THE PEOPLE (1944), PRIORITIES ON PARADE (1944) and ROSIE THE RIVETER (1944). Although light entertainment with silly plots and no characterization, they praise the women engaged in the manufacture of planes and ships that will bring about a U.S. victory. However, the films often bestow this praise in a somewhat confusing manner, sending a series of mixed messages. In one comedic scene in MEET THE PEOPLE, Lucille Ball, a Broadway star working temporarily in a shipyard, and co-worker Dick Powell are invited to dinner in the home of fellow workers so that the star can learn how ordinary working people really live. The husband is cooking dinner because the wife is working that shift, and he has taken on all the characteristics of a stereotypical housewife. He gossips with another man, a newlywed neighbor, then gives him a recipe, complaining that these newlywed husbands don't know anything about cooking. He fusses at the children and admonishes them, "If you don't stay in your room, when your mother gets home, I'll have her give you a good spanking." When one of the children cries over a broken toy, the father comforts him with "Wait till your mother gets home. She's a great mechanic."
On one level, this role reversal may have tried to praise the woman for her assumption of the man's traditional working role in a time of national emergency. But the execution of such role reversal denigrates her, emphasizing the unfavorable "female" qualities of gossipiness, complaining, fussing and inability to control or do things for the children. The film compounds the ambivalence of its message by the fact that the husband, while good-natured about pitching in at home, looks silly in an apron and definitely appears out of character. The film depicts domestic life as neither his place nor his role.
Despite its confusing approach, the film also lauds the efforts of nameless women workers. Ball, as a celebrity, receives publicity for working in a factory, but Powell asks a photographer, "Why don't you take some pictures of number 2610? She's just a riveter, who builds ships for a living."
Another series of ambivalent messages concerning working women is transmitted in PRIORITIES ON PARADE. The film assures women that it is patriotic to work in war plants, but implies that it is difficult to do this and be a "real
Rhodes is favorably contrasted with Ann Miller, a singer-dancer who would not dream of working in a factory. When Miller interrupts her nightclub act to introduce Rhodes sarcastically to the audience with ridiculing remarks about the woman welder, Rhodes rises to make the following speech:
ROSIE THE RIVETER is the film which gave these women-working-in-war-plant movies their generic designation. There are few Americans older than 50 or so who do not have some recollection of Rosie the Riveter as the subject of both song and film. The plot revolves around the wartime housing shortage. Rosie, played by Jane Frazee, and her sidekick, Vera Vague, work the day shift at an airplane factory. The two friends share one room with two men who work the night shift, a daring arrangement for its time, acceptable only because of the war's exigencies.
The movie exhibits a total lack of social realism with regard to job training and performance. Frazee first looks hopelessly inept with a paint spray gun, but upon being transferred to another department, she is transformed immediate1y into a first-class riveter. Similarly, in MEET THE PEOPLE Ball becomes magically transformed into a welder. Though she claims that her flower-petal hands now carry a blowtorch, she never appears with one in her hands.
Apart from the few seconds devoted to Rosie's spray painting and riveting, ROSIE THE RIVETER gives little indication that those essential airplanes are the product of anything more than factory noontime dances and morale-boosting musical shows. Wartime moviegoers must have been amazed at the number of talented singers and dancers working in war plants, willing to devote their time to entertaining fellow workers.
Rosie's comment, "I think it's every girl's duty to do what she can to help," typifies the simplistic attitude revealed in all of these films. Rosie's naive feeling becomes juxtaposed against her fiancé's view that she should not be doing a man's work. The same sentiment is also expressed in THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU by Parker's brother, who whines, "Well, that's the war for you. Girls get jobs paying men's wages …"
Male chauvinism is at the least implicit in all of these films, it is exemplified in ROSIE THE RiVETER by the sign on the factory wall: "If your sweater is too small for you, watch out for the men." During an award presentation by the Army, the General addresses a mixed audience of male and female workers as "Men." He introduces Frazee as "one of your fellow workers, a young lady who so typifies Miss America of today: Rosie the Riveter." The film concludes with the following paean to Rosie's abilities:
Several general conclusions can be reached concerning these war-plant films. They portray women entering the work force principally for patriotic reasons, and they capitalize on the fact that "the production of airplanes, parachutes and artillery held a special appeal for women whose primary motivation in working was to help their sons and husbands fighting in the field." (Chafe, p. 140). While they glamorize factory work to a ridiculous extent, the films capture a little of the excitement in working at something considered important. A distinctive feature of these films is the glamorizing of blue-collar work, which the media had previously ignored. It took the special circumstances of the war for Hollywood movies to get a focus on factory work, particularly women's participation in that world. They reflect an attitude which Lingemann mentions:
At the same time, the films indicate that many women worked because of the need to support themselves or augment family incomes, but this situation is considered a temporary social aberration.
The celluloid women generally behave professionally, except for the occasional comic relief of a Vera Vogue amorously chasing a Jerry Colonna around the factory. This professionalism contrasts with the notion of the time that women did not know how to behave on the job. A 1943 Women's Day article confirmed stereotypical complaints and instructed women working in war plants to "park their personal problems at the portal." They were cautioned: "Don't talk too much or to many, don't pamper a peeve, and don't ape the men," and they were instructed on the "feminine" way to respond to flirtatious remarks from male co-workers.
Except for the initial condemnation of Rhodes in PRIORITIES ON PARADE for being "too masculine," the films show the women as generally accepted by the men as co-workers, corroborating Chafe's assessment:
Chafe also points out,
This fact is not reflected in the films, as the featured women are young and (at least at the beginning) unmarried.
Inasmuch as ROSIE THE RIVETER and the other films of this genre were intended primarily to glorify women's contribution to the war effort, it is not surprising that they do not address important social issues that attended the introduction of large numbers of women into the world of factory work. Although many women defense workers were unionized, unions are never even alluded to in these films. Nor is there discussion of salary, even though the Women's Bureau had already recognized and begun to address this issue.
The films also studiously avoid reference to skin color and racism. Despite the fact that, "Black women were found in considerable numbers … and many were craftsmen and foremen (sic)", no black worker is ever shown, even in the background, in any of the films under study. Black women Interviewed in the 1980 documentary film THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER confirm that racism was rampant in these factories. Although the Women's Bureau reported that "women working in war plants had different national backgrounds and diverse living and social standards," Rosie's fellow factory workers seem to represent a totally white and curiously classless society, with no differences in ethnic background.
The films do not address special problems facing working women, such as child care, despite the fact that "more than 50 per cent of the female work force were full-time housewives, saddled with the continuing need to shop, cook and care for the children…" Susan M. Hartman reports that a few companies recognized the double burden of women with families and sought to alleviate women's domestic duties by providing specific services in the plant, such as child care, shopping, laundry and repair services and take-home meals.
Contemporary students of the period disagree as to whether World War II was a watershed event that marked the introduction of women into the factory work force or was a false start in that direction. Chafe claims the war "caused women's work to be redefined as a national priority" (p. 246). However, Rupp asserts that only superficial changes in women's participation in the workforce occurred during the war "because they were meant by the government and understood by the public to be temporary." Kessler-Harris insists,
The Hollywood war films presented a highly romanticized version of the working conditions of women in the war plants. Whereas the films depict the environment as enjoyable, with a classless group working together harmoniously, the women war workers faced extremely difficult and demanding working conditions. Sexism and racism were pervasive, as reported in the documentary THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER.
Hollywood films were intended to serve as propaganda to encourage women to enter the work force. Despite the praise that Hollywood heaped on women workers and their contribution to the war effort, it did not take seriously the participation of women in the country's labor force. The films assumed that women went to the factories only for the duration and that their hopes for the future related exclusively to boyfriends' or husbands' return. In this respect, the films accurately reflected the attitude of the U.S. government and the unions, which formulated policies to replace working women after the war. The films showed women as doing their part for defense, but assumed that when the conflict was over, they would return to their roles as wives and homemakers. War is a temporary state, and Hollywood's World War II movies portray Rosie as a temporary riveter.
1. Ronald H. Bailey, The Home Front: USA, World War II (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1977). p. 85.
2. William Henry Chafe, The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 147. (Hereafter cited in text by page number.)
3. Saturday Evening Post, May 29, 1943.
4. Bailey, p. 85.
5. Leila J. Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 152.
6. Roger Manvell, Films and the Second World War (South Brunswick, NJ: A.S. Barnes and Co., 1974), p. 116.
7. David O. Selznick, prod., SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, United Artists, 1944. (All quotations from films are from soundtracks, not from published screenplays.)
8. Melva Joyce Baker, "Images of Women: The War Years, 1941-1945: A Study of the Public Perceptions of Women's Roles as Revealed in Top-Grossing War Films,'" Diss. University of California, Santa Barbara 1978, p. 239.
9. I LOVE A SOLDIER, Paramount, 1944.
10. MEET THE PEOPLE, MGM, 1944.
11. PRIORITIES ON PARADE, Paramount, 1942.
12. See: Dorothy B. Jones, "The Hollywood War Film: 1942-1944," Hollywood Quarterly, 1, No.1, Oct. 1945, p. 8. She counts 21 films made about war materiel production and says more than one-third were musicals,
13. ROSIE THE RIVETER, Republic, 1944.
14. THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU, Warner Bros., 1944.
15. Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, "Rosie the Riveter," Copyright 1942 by Paramount Music Corp.
16. Richard R. Lingemann, Don't You Know There's a War Going On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945 (New York: G.P, Putnam's Sons, 1976), p. 150.
17. Clara Belle Thompson and Margaret Lukes Wise, "Women Would Be Marvelous if …" Woman's Daily 6, No. 12, Sept. 1943, pp. 61-63,
18. Mary Robinson, "Women Workers in Two Wars," Monthly Labor Review, 47, No. 4, Oct. 1943, p. 670. Also see: Alice Kessler-Harris, Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 289.
19. Chester W. Gregory, Women in Defense Work During World War II (New York: Exposition Press, 1974), pp. 140-143.
20. THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER, Clarity Educational Productions, 1980, dir. Connie Field.
21. U.S. Department of Labor, Women's Bureau, "Women's Wartime Hours of Work," Washington, 1946, p. 4.
22. Bailey, p. 86.
23. Susan M. Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940's (Boston: Twayne, 1982), p. 62.
24. Rupp, 138.
25. Alice Kessler-Harris, Women Have Always Worked (Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1981), p. 142. This point is also emphasized by the ex-war plant workers interviewed in THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER.
26. Kessler-Harris, p. 143.