American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during World War II, as widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the industrial labor force. Between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27% to nearly 37%, and by 1945 nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.
While women worked in a variety of positions previously closed to them during World War II, the aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers. More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65% of the industry's total workforce (compared to just one percent in the pre-war years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as illustrated by the U.S. government's "Rosie the Riveter" propaganda campaign. Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker, but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era.
People came from all over the country to Richmond to work in the shipyards during the war. This led to explosive growth of the city, and a dramatic exchange between people of diverse ethnicities and cultures. Men and women of different backgrounds worked and lived side-by-side here. Although gender and racial discrimination did not end after the war, this experience dramatically redefined American society, and planted the seeds for the civil rights and women's rights movements.
'I'm 83 years old now. I would appreciate if you would check and find out that I was truly there and did my part to the end, and add my name to the women who did their part also...'
'I learned to weld, and when they said I was okay, went to the hiring hall and was run off. You had to belong to the union, and they said, "No women or blacks." I got pretty upset, but went back every day and up to a different window. I was one of the first six women to get hired at pre-fab.'
'A chaperone was hired to escort us to our workplace and herd us to the bathroom and lunch. They didn't know how the men would react. But soon there were just too many of us.'
'Let me tell you this. I was 23. I never had a job. My husband was an electician. I told him "I'm going to work, too." He said, "No you're not." That same afternoon I went to the hiring hall.'
'When I got my first paycheck it was $16.80 a week. I was so happy. I stuck it on my wall in the bedroom, then in the kitchen. I didn't want to cash it, I thought I was so rich.'
'Remember those blue stamps? You could hardly find meat. Our friend had a lot of children, so we traded shoe rations for meat rations.'
'It was hard to convince your lead man that you could do the work. When he assigned jobs, I used to follow him around and say, "I could do that, I could do that." He got sick of me and said, "Okay do it!" And of course, I could. I could do it.'
'It was in all the newspapers--they needed women workers in factories. We all got raises because my boss was afraid we'd quit and get defense jobs.'
"You must tell your children, putting modesty aside, that without us, without women, there would have been no Spring in 1945."
Inscription on Rosie the Riveter Memorial