ARLINGTON, Va. — When it comes to symbolizing the influx of women in the workforce and the wave of patriotism and feminism that surge sparked during World War II, few American icons are more recognizable than “Rosie the Riveter.”
Artist J. Howard Miller’s 1942 poster, featuring a bandanna-donning, blue-collared woman with the famed flex beneath the rally cry, “We Can Do It!” grew over time to represent millions of women who stepped up to fill various stateside labor-intensive jobs once held by men, now tapped to fight German and Japanese forces.
The notable efforts of the woman workforce that led to the eventual U.S. victory in 1945 inspired one of the last remaining original “Rosies,” Mae Krier, to carry their story to the Pentagon March 20 to advocate for long overdue recognition on Capitol Hill March 21, with a “Rosie the Riveter Day of Remembrance,” incidentally aligning with her 93rd birthday. She said she hopes lawmakers will not only recognize the day, but award them the Congressional Gold Medal for their service.
After all, the story of her journey is, fittingly, a riveting one, decades in the making.
The world changed on a shocking Sunday Dec. 7, 1941, as 183 Japanese warplanes attacked Hickam Field, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In its wake, the disaster left 2,433 dead, destroyed 18 U.S. warships and 188 airplanes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately responded with a call to war.
Krier recalled coming home to find her parents shaken and huddled next to the radio as news of Pearl Harbor spread, and just days later Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States.
“We were fighting wars across two oceans and I remember thinking ‘I’m not even sure I know where Pearl Harbor is,’ I don’t think many of us did,” she said. “In small towns the boys enlisted right away … and America was full of holes, because so many never came back.”
On a lark, Krier, a Danson, North Dakota, native, traveled by a no-frills “troop train” to Seattle to produce the B-17 Flying Fortress and B-29 Superfortress bombers during the war. She said traversing miles was not unlike the endeavors of her grandparents, themselves hearty pioneers who didn’t fear a change of scenery.
“Now that the boys had left, we girls thought we would get into the act also,” she said of the adventure she, her sister and a friend took. “I remember the train windows were open and the steam and soot would come in the windows.”
The notion of steady work appealed to men and women alike, as many American families still teetered financially following the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl.
Mothers, daughters, secretaries, wives and even schoolgirls picked up the factory duties the men had left behind.
“Before the jobs came, we struggled, we suffered, everyone did,” she said. “But that was life – and I don’t think it hurt me.”
Once at Boeing, Krier said she had no idea how much larger-than-life the Rosie icon would become. “We worked because we had a job to do … it wasn’t my job, your job, it was our job — we had to save our country.”
And, she noted, it was only after the war was over that the posters skyrocketed in popularity.
Dawn Goldfein, spouse to Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, hosted the Pentagon tour with Krier, noting her story can inspire a “We Can Do It!” attitude among new generations of young women around the world.
“Mae is an American treasure, a true iconic legacy who knows what it means to be a part of something bigger than herself and give back,” Goldfein said. “Girls and women of all ages can benefit from her extraordinary story and be inspired to change the world as she and all the Rosies did.”
Today, military and civilian women hold positions of power across the globe, signaling a new and irreversible era of positive change in the women’s rights and equality movement.
“It’s so amazing for our generation to see this, because my mother only got the right to vote when I was about 4 years old,” Krier said. “I’ve lived through 16 presidents but never thought I’d get to see and experience the things I have today.”
Now Krier, who was married to her husband, Norm, for nearly 70 years before his death, is a mother, grandmother and great-great grandmother. They met during a jitterbug dance in Seattle in 1944 before they wed in 1945.
When the Air Force chief of staff and dozens of Pentagon workers surprised her with a visit and a birthday cake, Krier wasted no time reminding him of her contribution to the U.S. war effort many moons ago.
“They never lost a B-17 because of a bad rivet,” Krier said over applause and laughter.