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A "rivet"-ing snapshot of American women's history

March 19, 2012

By now most of us are familiar with the iconic image of a working-class woman during World War II known as "Rosie the Riveter." As you may know, "Rosie" is a character based on images of real working women at the time. What you may not know is that the Benson Ford Research Center has a wealth of these Rosie-the-Riveter-type images within its collection of photographs donated from Ford Motor Company.

Women riveting the side of an airplane panel at Ford Motor Company's Willow Run bomber assembly plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, August 23, 1944. (From the collections of The Henry Ford - THF103582)

What I find delightful about these images is that they tell a story about American women set in a specific place and time — not to mention documenting the budding social change that would flower in later decades.

(By the way: The woman shown below, Norma Denton, was photographed February 10, 1943, as part of Ford Motor Company's P.R. photo essay entitled "Around the Clock Activities," which documents a day in the life of several working women in a war production factory. You can learn more about Norma and the "Around the Clock Activities" photographs on our Flickr site, as well as on our Collections page.)

Norma Denton on top of an airplane assembly at the Willow Run plant. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77449.4)

Another photo from the "Around the Clock Activities" series, showing two women (one of them a Mrs. Anderson) catching the bus to go to work at the Willow Run bomber plant. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77448.5)

From 1942 to 1945, when many American men were overseas fighting the war, women were hired to fill in for the lack of male employees in factories. These women were expected to do everything that men had to do to build tanks, jeeps and bombers for the U.S. "Arsenal of Democracy." All of the automotive companies in the Detroit area, as well as those in the rest of the country, ceased making automobiles and converted their assembly lines to wartime production. Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and the Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan, were two of the largest such facilities.

Workers on the assembly line at Ford Motor Company's Rouge assembly plant, March 17, 1943. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77606)

Employees walking down a hallway in the Willow Run plant, October 16, 1942. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.77111.O)

During peak production at the Willow Run plant, up to one third of the workforce consisted of women. This does not seem like a particularly sizable number to us today; however, it was significant at the time because prior to World War II, very few manufacturing facilities employed that many women. Once the war was over, women were expected to return to being housewives and mothers so that the returning GI's could go back to work. It would take years, if not decades, before women re-entered the work force in significant numbers.

I particularly like the following two photographs that show women employees with the B-24 "Liberator" bombers they helped to build. I think the enthusiasm of the women in photo #P.833.80544.6 and the confident stride of the woman in photo #P.833.80180.1 are indicative of the pride and economic independence women felt as productive members of the workforce. The image of these women posing with their "Liberators" is also a fitting metaphor for the future women's movement whose seeds were arguably sown here.

The underside of a bomber airplane wing, with a woman walking with a clipboard, June 19, 1944, at the Willow Run airport. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.80180.1)

Six women posing in front of Ford's 6,000th B-24 Bomber at Willow Run airport, September 9, 1944. (From the collections of The Henry Ford, #P.833.80544.6)

Linda Skolarus is Manager of Reference Services at the Benson Ford Research Center, where you can research 'Rosie' and much more.

antique posters, womens history

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