Let’s set the tone: Imagine a person walking up to your white picket fence and promptly smashing it with a sledge hammer. The American Dream, yours and countless others, was just smashed into pieces. Americans experienced this on the Eve of Revolution, in the economic Depression, and in the Dust Bowl, but they picked up the pieces and survived.
In essence, that is what America felt on a global level when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
As previously blogged, survival is the essence of achieving, and in World War II’s case upholding, the American Dream. Your ability as a person or collectively as a country to overcome and succeed allows you to achieve that Dream; when it’s smashed, there is nothing to do but try to survive again. American culture, based on the survival efforts of man was thrown upside down when all of our men were sent to the front lines. Who would help the country pick up the broken pieces of its white picket fence?
Enter: Rosie the Riveter.
Women all over the country (my grandmother included,) put on pants, tied up their pin curls, picked up their drills and fought for the survival that would enable us to rebuild our white picket fences one rivet at a time.
Women, like Mary Cohen, were encouraged by the Office of War Information’s magazine campaigns run by Dorothy Dorcas and the Magazine Bureau (Honey) to take up the jobs of men to fulfill their patriotic duty to their country and help the country survive in its time of need. The propaganda campaigns of the OWI achieved the goal of their “psychological” war in drawing women into taking up the duty of survival previously left to men. No doubt the achievement of these women, their dedication and patriotism to our country is commendable; but how do women like Mary Cohen survive in our male dominated historical narrative? How do these women’s stories become a huge part of World War II’s historical narrative?
Mary Cohen commuted two hours every day, 5 days a week to rivet in New Jersey in 1942. After fulfilling what she felt was her American duty to help support the men over-seas and “rebuild the fence,” she joined the United States Army and worked on airplanes in Tucson. She later married, had children, and worked for the State of California to help place veterans in jobs. In one of her stories she tells of giving up her seat on a plane to a young man returning home from Iraq. Clearly Cohen represents the ideal woman of American society that history has presented us; patriotic, willing to serve her country, a mother and wife, a supportive role model. Her profile fit into the narrative of World War II without disturbing the accomplishments of man- She “[could] do it!” She, like all Rosie’s, achieved iconic status because of a supporting role- much like Betsy Ross did for the American Revolution.
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich makes the argument that Betsy Ross persists as a historical figure because she fits the dominant historical narrative. Mary Cohen wanted to fly planes, but her choice to support and rivet, like all Rosies is what makes Rosie an Icon. The fact that Mary Cohen, an embodiment of Rosie, never got into the plane and bombed, and the fact that she willingly took the role of support that the government needed to rebuild its “fence,” her understanding that survival and upholding the American Dream was only hers for a brief period of time, is what allows Rosie to remain an icon of World War II and the larger American historical narrative.