We Can Do It: A Brief Look Into the Women of World War II, an Internship Update, and Goodbye

by: Hannah Marcel

My last few weeks at the Charlestown Navy Yard have been filled with opportunities for learning and engaging in history. A conservator came into the park to do work on objects displayed in the visitor center. The exhibit remained open while this work occurred, providing an opportunity to engage visitors in the process of preservation and giving me a chance to experience this public outreach. During this process I answered visitor questions about the objects and the conservators work. The first to receive attention was a display of foot protection used by Navy Yard workers. A pair of steel toe boots show the safest form of footwear, unfortunately the priciest. A pair of steel toe covers show a cheaper alternative that can be clasped on to a regular pair of boots and still provide protection. Lastly, on display are a pair of regular boots with strips of steel nailed over the toe, even cheaper still, but not an ideal form of protection. The conservator examined the condition of the boots, looking for any signs of deterioration, before performing a light brush vacuuming to clean the boots.

The next object receiving care was an eagle figurehead on display that had been removed from the ship USS Nightingale. The Nightingale was siezed by the United States Navy for participating in the illegal slave trade and repurposed for use during the Civil War. The figurehead was removed following the war. A layer of a shellac like substance appeared to be surrounding portions of the eagle figurehead, possibly covering a gilded decoration underneath that could be seen in certain areas where the outer layer had chipped away. A cleaning test was performed to see if this layer would be removable.

Not all objects in collections are on display, however, and work continued behind the scenes as well. To prepare for an upcoming move, many of the foundry patterns housed in the collection need to be wrapped and boxed. This requires caution in both the handling of the objects as well as recording which box they have been moved to and where in the collection that box is located.

 The highlight of the past few weeks has been the World War II focused event hosted at the Charlestown Navy Yard. The event, titled We Can Do It; Service on the Homefront, showcased the sacrifices needed on the homefront to support the war effort. There was a strong emphasis on the contributions of women during the war with the event being nicknamed “Rosie” or the “Rosie Event” among park staff. This is in reference to historical and feminist icon Rosie the Riveter, which park staff and visitors were encouraged to dress as in keeping with the events theme. A variety of lectures were given by rangers and historians, including how Massachusetts prepared soldiers for the war, and the role of make up in women’s lives during World War II. Ranger led talks explored an on site victory garden, and discussed the actual women that worked in the Navy Yard during the war. The event gave visitors an opportunity to see how the war impacted American society, giving opportunities to those who they had been closed off to previously including women, people of color, and disabled workers. It also provided a look into how production in the Navy Yard, which occurred night and day, contributed to the war effort. 

The park partnered with other parks and historical organizations to provide an education opportunity for all. Members of the 26th Infantry Division, a World War II reenactment group, had a living history tent set up on the lawn of the Commandant’s House. Staff from the Lowell National Historic Park were on site to discuss how the war impacted life in Lowell as well. In the evenings, live bands blasted hits from World War II to accompany a swing lesson followed by a lively dance where visitors could put their moves to the test.

Dive Deeper: Rosie the Riveter and the Women of World War II 

The event gave me a wonderful opportunity to dive into the role of women during World War II as well as the history of the Rosie the Riveter icon. Who did Rosie the Riveter represent? Bright red lips, hair pulled back in a bandana, arm curled up as a sign of strength is a recognizable icon that once served as motivation for women during the war. This rendition of Rosie has become a well known feminist symbol representing the strength of women, especially in the workforce. The image was not widely seen during the war, however, hanging on the wall of a helmet-liner factory for only two weeks. In fact, it wasn’t until a 1982 article about patriotic posters did it’s popularity grow, becoming the feminist symbol that it is today. The nickname referring to the women working in production during the war, Rosie, can likely be attributed to a well known pop song of the era. “Rosie the Riveter,” sung by the Four Vagabonds, was written to showcase the contributions of working women during the war. Norman Rockwell, possibly motivated by the song, painted an image of a working woman with the name Rosie painted on her lunchbox. Both the song and the painting likely cemented the nickname in American society. 

 American pop culture played a significant role in the war effort by encouraging public participation and reflecting the anxiety of the time. Movies, cartoons, and comics educated the public on the importance of supporting the war. War Bonds, food rationing, and victory gardening were all popular topics of discussion. Artists and musicians depicted what life was like on the homefront and abroad as fighting continued. Posters, like the image of Rosie the Riveter, specifically encouraged women to participate. The Women’s Army Corps (WACS), The Navy Women Accepted for Volunteer Services (WAVES), and the Coast Guards Women Reserve (SPARS) all utilized posters to recruit women directly into the military effort. These posters promised a sooner victory and increased safety for the troops if women joined. The women enrolled would serve in a position previously held by men, freeing them up to fight abroad. The women of the WAVES were prohibited from serving overseas, with the exception of Hawaii, and performed crucial tasks on Navy bases at home. These tasks included clerical work, healthcare, radio operating, machine work, parachute rigging, and training men to serve abroad.

 Enrollment in the military was not required to work in production, as a Rosie, and women across the country kept the nation running. Over 8,000 women were employed here in the Navy Yard during the war. The work was not always easy and shifts often lasted 10-12 hours, running 24 hours a day. After long hours of work, many of these women had to return to prepare meals for their families and maintain their household. Childcare was rarely offered to the women, providing another challenge for many working mothers. In some cases, men did not wish to be working alongside the women arguing that they were weaker, more emotional, and ultimately taking a men’s work. On occasion the women would face tricks and harassment from their male peers.  Despite these challenges, the women stepped up to support the nation. This work often gave women a new level of social freedom by providing an income, with many moving to urban areas to work. For some this was the first time they had ever worked, for others it was a new opportunity. The Rosie the Riveter icon has historically ignored the reality of many African American women who faced discrimination for being both African American and women. In many cases African American women, and women of lower social status, had already been working to support their families. Jobs in production provided increased opportunity for them however, with better wages. This work also began breaking down many divides and gave women a chance to interact with people that they likely would not have previously.

 The war began to impact the role of women in the workforce on a larger scale. After victory was won increased amounts of production were no longer needed to support a war. Men were sent back to America, returning to work. Some women desired to remain in the workforce, utilizing the skills they had developed during the war. The nation grappled with the best way to handle this transition, facing many questions. Had the women not sacrificed plenty in their own lives to support the war effort, learning a wider depth of talents? Would it be fair to let them go after all they had done? What about war widows who had families to support? At the same time, hadn’t the agreement been that work would be temporary, a solution for the war and nothing further? Would it be fair to tell a soldier who had also placed his life on hold, and at risk, that his job was not available for him when he got back? A poll taken at the time suggested that 48% of Americans felt the women should be let go, with another 36% believing that they should only stay on if they were war widows or there was plenty of work for men already. Most navy yards and factories agreed and began letting their women workers go, starting with women of color and disabled women.

To learn more about the women who worked her in the Charlestown Navy Yard, visit https://www.nps.gov/bost/learn/historyculture/women-navy-yard-workers.htm 

To hear interviews of women who went to work during the war, visit http://dlib.nyu.edu/rosie/interviews/susan-taylor-king 

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