In 1971 at the request of Rep. Bella Abzug (D-NY), the U.S. Congress designated Aug. 26 as “Women’s Equality Day.” The date was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. This was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1884 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.
Due to high unemployment during the Great Depression, most Americans were against women working. Society saw it as women taking jobs from unemployed men. However, in the face of acute wartime labor shortages during WWII, women were needed in the defense industry, the civilian service and the armed forces.
Depending on age, race, class, marital status and the number of children, women responded differently to the call to work. Half of the women who took war-related jobs were minorities and lower-class women who were already in the workforce. They switched from lower-paying, traditionally female jobs to higher-paying factory jobs.
Still even more women were needed, so companies recruited women right out of high school. Eventually, it became evident that married women were needed, but they were pressured not to work, especially if they had young children. The government even feared that a rise in working mothers would lead to a rise in juvenile delinquency.
The U. S. government had to overcome these challenges in order to recruit women to the workforce. Between 1942 and 1944, the U. S. Office of War Information initiated “an intense courtship of women by employers and government.” The government produced a Magazine War Guide that gave magazine publishers ideas, information and slogans for their publications to recruit women workers.
In 1942, artist J. Howard Miller was hired by the Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee to create a series of posters for the war effort. One of these posters became the famous “We Can Do It!” image. The image, in later years, would become known as “Rosie the Riveter.” The poster was not initially seen much beyond one Midwest Westinghouse factory, where it was displayed for two weeks in February 1942.
The Saturday Evening Post cover artist Norman Rockwell is generally credited with creating the popular “Rosie the Riveter” images. Rockwell’s Rosie appeared on the cover of the May 29, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. It was a painting of a woman worker with a muscular body, cute and saucy face and a very determined expression. She had a rivet gun resting across her lap and the name “Rosie” painted on her lunchbox. Emphasizing her patriotism with the American flag as the background and her feet planted firmly on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the image was a huge success.
Soon stories about real life “Rosies” began appearing in newspapers across the country. The government took advantage of the popularity of Rosie the Riveter and embarked on a recruiting campaign of the same name.
The underlying theme was the social change required to bring women into the workforce was a patriotic responsibility for women and employers. This made a tremendous change in the relationship between women and the workplace. Employment outside of the home became socially acceptable and even desirable.
From 1941 to 1945, more than 200,000 women served in the U. S. military, while over six million flooded the American workforce. Countless additional women – single and married- supported the Allied war efforts through activities like civic campaigning and rationing. Women became streetcar drivers, operated heavy construction machinery, worked in lumber and steel mills, unloaded freight and much more. They helped build planes, bombs, tanks, and other weapons that would eventually help win the war. Women were given the opportunity to accomplish things that men alone had achieved before.
The bandanna-clad Rosie the Riveter 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. The fictional character came to symbolize the millions of women who filled America’s factories, munitions plants and shipyards. Rosie later became an iconic American image in the fight to broaden women’s civil rights. Her creation represents a page of the United States’ story and celebrates women’s journey toward equality.
Many women reported they felt patriotic and wanted to support their country and the money was secondary. It instilled endless pride, knowing they were doing their part to help win the war. However, this new image of women created during the war was only temporary. After the war, the cultural division of labor by sex reasserted itself. Rosie the Riveter disappeared as quickly as she appeared.
For a brief time, Rosie captured the imaginations of women who yearned to follow in the footsteps of this heroic, patriotic, and glamorous female figure doing a “man’s job.” She paved the way for gender equity and greater gains for women throughout American society.
The observance of Women’s Equality Day also calls attention to continuing efforts toward full equality. Many workplaces, libraries, organizations and public facilities now participate with Women’s Equality Day programs, displays, video showings or other activities.