Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in an event commemorating the work of “Rosies”—women involved in industry in defense during World War II—at Boston National Historical Park. My talk, “Race and Rosie,” was on racial constructions and ethnic differences within the broad category of “women’s work” during the war.
I arrived at Charlestown Navy Yard early in the morning, the air heavy with unrelenting humidity. During the past few hours, I had been reviewing notes for my talk as I rode north on the train to Boston. Once I arrived at the Boston NHP complex (by boat, I should add) I was immediately taken aback by the enormity of the Navy Yard and the constant swarm of activity. Since this was the centennial celebration week for the National Park Service, the visitors’ area was especially busy with human activity. But there was something particularly striking about what I was seeing; this wasn’t just an overwhelming crowd. Having just put down my sources on the chaos and complexity of work culture at the yard during the war, I couldn’t help but feel that I was catching a small window of insight into the world of defense work seven decades ago.
As the promotional banners had promised, “Rosies,” meaning women dressed like the icon “Rosie the Riveter,” were indeed “invading” the yard along with hundreds of tourists. Throughout the crowd, I could see a smattering of women dressed in rough, industrial gear and denim. Most had their hair pinned back behind a red kerchief and red lipstick applied liberally to match. These women (workers) moved seamlessly through the yard, passing vintage military vehicles and other young women who were not wearing interpretation garb but instead, the camouflage gear currently assigned to women serving in the armed forces today. Other females, including front-line NPS interpreters, were moving around in this same dance, though they donned the “greens” and “greys” of park employees.
Today, the yard is largely, but not entirely, a museum space. With museum workers, NPS uniformed staff, and military personnel walking around in what seemed like almost equal measure, the park is a curious blend of civilian and military life. The large-scale artifacts living at Boston NHP add to this sense that one is in a highly unusual place. A World War II destroyer, the USS Cassin Young, sits alongside the USS Constitution: these present day neighbors were built nearly 150 years apart and for very different purposes. Indeed—they were built for entirely different versions of the same nations, though both remind us of the far reach of the military into all facets of our culture today.
I mention all of this because footage of my talk will be going online, along with the commentary from the panel assembled later in the day. I need not repeat precisely what I said during my lecture on this blog. Yet there are aspects of this day, such as what I reflected on briefly here, that I want to preserve. Public historians—really, all historians—do not work on sterile environments. When we present, and when we speak to the public, it is always within a context. Many of the “Rosies” speakers, myself included, reflected on the challenges faced by women workers who sought to balance their own sense of femininity with the difficulties of laboring in a navy yard. Visiting Charlestown, I saw how clearly women are now represented within the museum world and within the military.
Still, I wondered: why does “Rosie” carry so much cultural baggage?* Why do we still turn so frequently and with such great ease, to a working woman who never existed but merely graced industrial propaganda posters 70 years ago? I left that day feeling stimulated by the conversations we had, though I can’t say that I have any grand conclusions as to the power of Rosie. But that should not really surprise me. For some, Rosie is an icon of empowerment–a marker within a feminist arc in which women increasingly “invade” not only shipyards, but almost all arenas of employment. Still, we also learned that day that women workers in Charlestown were unable to secure childcare or most other benefits. On this Labor Day, I think about what Rosie implored us to consider—that “we” can do it—but perhaps we are still far from deciding the terms under which women should want to labor.