Rosie the Riveter with flexed arm

While American men were being shipped to the front lines in the 1940s, American women were moving to the factory lines.

Spurred on by higher wages and a propaganda poster featuring a muscle-bound "Rosie the Riveter" exclaiming "We Can Do It!," millions of American women helped assemble bombs, build tanks, weld hulls and grease locomotives. More than 6 million women became war workers. Most were married; 60 percent were over 35 and a third had children under 14. A popular song of the day praised "Rosie the Riveter" in verse: "That little frail can do/more than a male can do."

Though they were rewarded with increased wages -- and were thought to be better than men at certain tasks -- on average, women war workers were paid only 60 percent of male wages. Many faced harassment and were judged by prevailing social attitudes. At some plants women workers were told not to wear sweaters for "moral reasons." And the government insisted that "Rosie the Riveter" was a temporary response to war. "A woman is a substitute," claimed a War Department brochure, "like plastic instead of metal."

"Daddy, what did you do in the war?" was a popular question for soldiers coming back from our nation's battles, but World War II added a whole new concept - "Mommy, what did you do in the war?"

Rose Will Monroe probably best represented the new way of life whereby the women who raised the post World War II baby boom generation also provided most of the labor for producing the materials of the war. Monroe, who died on May 31, 1997 in Clarksdale, Ind., became famous as "Rosie the Riveter." Norman Rockwell depicted her for the Saturday Evening Post and she became famous as a war bond promoter, as well as a poster girl flexing her muscles while wearing a Women Ordnance Worker (WOW) bandanna.

But Rosie was not just another poster girl. She was the real thing. She was working as a riveter building B-29 and B-24 airplanes at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Mich., when she was discovered" by Walter Pidgeon, the actor. Because she fit the image of the Kay Kyser hit song, "Rosie the Riveter", she was selected to appear in a short film that promoted war bonds throughout the nation's theaters.

During World War II, so many men were sent off to war, and so much new production was needed to support that war effort that there was a gross shortage of manpower to staff factories and manufacturing plants. As a result, propaganda was distributed through print, film and radio to encourage women to take over their jobs for the duration of the war. There was a catch, however. When the war was over, they were supposed to give the jobs right back.

Rosie The Riveter was the name given to the woman depicted on many of the propaganda posters. In the most famous one, she is wearing a red and white bandana to cover her hair, and she has rolled back the sleeve of her blue coverall to expose a flexed bicep. The expression on her face was confident and determined. The caption above her head reads, "We Can Do It!" in bold letters.

Women who had been employed in fields predominated by women- pink collar secretarial positions, domestic jobs and lower paying industrial positions were eager to try their hands at the new opportunities. Soon they were successfully doing things only men had done before. Women became taxi and streetcar drivers, operated heavy construction machinery, worked in lumber and steel mills, unloaded freight, built dirigibles, made munitions and much more. Men's jobs always paid more, and this was women's only chance to step up and earn more.

The slogan, "Do the job he left behind" said a lot. She could do it as long as he didn't want it or wasn't around to do it. As soon as soldiers began to return home, women were forced out of these jobs, even if they had no other means of support. A great many women would have preferred to stay in their industrial jobs, but the influx of men and the attitudes of the day prevented it.

Despite the way they were discarded at the end of the war, these female workers had much to do with the success of the United States during World War II and their contribution should not be forgotten. In a very direct way, women helped win the war.