Close your eyes and picture the U.S. in the 1940s during WWII. Try to imagine the many assembly plants that were scattered throughout the nation. What kind of people do you picture building the fighter planes and bombers? Still wondering? The builders of these fighting machines were women. They were the mothers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends of the men that were oversees risking their lives for the sake of our beloved country. They were called “Rosies” after the 1940s song “Rosie the Riveter,” a song that details a women who is “making history” while “working for history (Rosie the Riveter Song).
The common belief at this time was that they were “young, white, and middle-class” (Honey 19). However, according to Professor of English and Women’s Studies at the University of Nebraska, Maureen Honey’s book titled Creating the Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During WWII this belief is a common misconception. Studies have shown that most women were “working- class” women who “needed the money to achieve a reasonable standard of living. This finding is supported by the Regional Oral History Office at the UC Berkley Library who collected a myriad of female oral histories during WWII. The fascinating life of Mary K. Cohen is one oral history that tell the story of a young poor Jewish woman who traveled 2 ½ hours to an assembly factory in order to support her family and also her country.
Cohen was born in Chicago, Illinois on July 23, 1923. Her parents emigrated from the Ukraine to Chicago, and later moved to the Bronx due to issues surrounding her father’s job. Because her family’s financial issues, she was forced to have her first job at the age of eight plucking kosher chickens at 3 cents per chicken. At the age of 14, Cohen added to her work experience by babysitting a couple of children. It was in this job that she also received 36 hours’ worth of flying lessons. The fact that Cohen had many work experience before she even was an adult supports Honey’s finding that most women had “prewar experience in the labor force.” This finding debunks the myth that most “Rosies’” first job was working in the factory.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Cohen felt the need to “do something,” she wanted “to do something special” (Regional Oral History Office 11). She responded to an ad in the newspaper looking for workers to build fighter planes. This job was so important to her that she can clearly recall her first day working in the factory. She remembers how she was instructed on how to use the drill and that the shifts became quite competitive. Cohen mentions that “it didn’t matter as far as the money.” I find this interesting seeing as how all of the $65 that she received was to help her family that were struggling (Regional Oral History Office 13). It appears that if she was paid more or less, it didn’t matter as the team’s sole concern was to get the planes out (Regional Oral History Office 12). It was not about the quantity of the money that motivated her, but the quantity of the planes that her team finished. For her, “it was a very patriotic feeling” (Regional Oral History Office 12).
One aspect of Cohen’s job during the war that she recalls was that was the first time that women wore pants (Regional Oral History Office 11). Outside of assembly plant, women were still wearing skirts and dresses. As a result, Cohen received many disapproving stares from non-working women. One women even said “You still can dress like a lady. You’re not dressed like a lady.” To which Cohen responded “Yeah, but we’re working on machines” The other lady “just walked away” (Regional Oral History Office 19). I find the reaction from these non- “Rosies” interesting as they should be supporting what the “Rosies” are doing to help aid the war. These women are working grueling jobs building fighter planes day in and day out and people only chose to comment on the fabric that covers their legs. The wearing of pants was not a fashion statement, but a safety issue. Cohen points out how one wouldn’t a “dress to be caught into the drill or into the machinery” as that would lead to a “real problem” (Regional Oral History Office 19). This is why the 1943 documentary by Ford Motor company “Women on the War Path” and the photographs issued by the Office of War Information (OWI) feature women with pants. These agencies want to show women that there is no safety hazard will drilling and riving. They also want to show that pants provided “Rosies” the ability to move around efficiently to create more war planes and thus help their country win the war.