Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women's Contributions During World War II
by Sean Irwin
Although often understated, the social, economic, and political contributions of American women have all had profound effects on the course of this nation. For evidence of this, one needs to look no further than the many roles that women have played during wartime. From the Revolutionary War's "Molly Pitcher" to the thousands of women serving the United States military today, women have not only had a direct impact on the conflicts of their times but have also successfully transformed such experiences into opportunities for future generations. Never was this more apparent than during World War II. From 1941 to 1945, more than 200,000 women served in the United States military, while over six million flooded the American workforce. Furthermore, countless women—single and married—supported the Allied war effort through activities like civic campaigning and rationing.
Many American students are aware that women played a role in the Second World War. Unfortunately this knowledge is often limited only to images of "Rosie the Riveter" and the wives and mothers left to manage households on their own. This lesson is designed to introduce and promote an interest in the many essential roles that women carried out during World War II and how they did so with great success. The driving force of this lesson is a student project entitled "The Faces of War" (see both Activity Three and the Extension Activity of this lesson for further details).
- Students will build a comprehensive understanding of the many ways that American women contributed to the war effort during World War II.
- Students will gain an understanding of how women's efforts during World War II marked significant changes in the American economy, politics, and the military.
- Students will explore and analyze a number of primary and secondary sources as well as multimedia resources.
- Students will apply the knowledge gained in this lesson to the development of a fictional character they create for an assigned project.
- Students will enhance their ability to research historical documents and texts throughout the development of their project.
Activity One: Rosie
After distributing lyrics of the World War II-era song, "Rosie the Riveter," the teacher should play the song for the students and instruct them to follow along with the words. The following websites will prove extremely helpful:
- "Rosie the Riveter" (scroll down to the "California Song Series" on this page, which provides a fifty-second explanation of the emergence of women in the workplace and a three-minute rendition of the song "Rosie the Riveter").
- Lyrics to "Rosie the Riveter"
Upon completion of the song, the teacher should ask if the students are familiar with the World War II character "Rosie the Riveter." If so, a student volunteer should be asked to describe her. If not, the teacher should ask the students how they imagined Rosie's appearance (given the song lyrics). Regardless of whether or not the students can recall the image of Rosie, the teacher should then share an image of Rosie with them. This will serve to either jog the students' memories or to introduce them to Rosie for the first time. Although Norman Rockwell's cover of the Saturday Evening Post (May 29, 1943) is often viewed as the true version of "Rosie the Riveter," other popular examples also exist. The following websites provide high resolution images of two different versions of Rosie:
- Rockwell's rendition, Artchive.com
- "We Can Do It", County College of Morris
- The interactive feature of the December 2007 History Now also includes the "We Can Do It" poster, along with other propaganda posters from World War II.
Once the students have been engaged in the lesson, the teacher should explain that even though the women in the American workforce did have a tremendous impact on World War II, women played many other key roles during the war. This lesson will look at women's contributions to the war in three different venues:
- "Women at war" (those who served in the military)
- "Women at work" (those who joined the American work force)
- "Women at home" (those who made contributions from their households).
Note: In explaining these roles and offering concrete statistics, facts, etc. regarding the impact of American women, and in assisting with the culminating student project designed as this lesson's extension activity, the following resources should prove helpful to the teacher and/or the students:
- America's Women by Gail Collins (chapter 17: "World War II: ‘She's Making History, Working for Victory'")
- The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw (part IV: "Women in Uniform and Out")
- Most United States history textbooks intended for high school use are helpful as well
- Ken Burns' The War, PBS
- "What Did You Do In The War Grandma?," Brown University
- Women and the Home Front During World War II, TeacherOz.com
- American Women's History: A Research Guide, World War II, Middle Tennessee State University Library
Activity Two: Women at war, women at work, and women at home
To begin this activity, the teacher should introduce the students to the lesson's culminating project (see the attached direction sheet for details). However, the teacher should be sure that the students do not select their pictures yet.
Dedicate approximately ten minutes to each of the three phases of women's contributions (i.e. "women at war," "women at work," and "women at home"). For each phase, the teacher should use a variety of instructional techniques to allow the students to enhance their understanding. Such techniques could include lecturing, small group work, and the investigation of primary sources and multimedia (e.g. video clips, World War II recruitment and propaganda posters, photographs). Throughout this activity, students should be mindful of the tasks they will have to complete for their project. Consequently, note-taking and the asking of questions should be encouraged.
While there are numerous excellent websites to assist in this effort, the website that accompanies Ken Burns' The War (linked above) is outstanding. Links to this site and others can be found below:
Resources for "Women at War"
- The Women’s Army Corps, US Army
- Army Nurse Corps, US Army
- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), Naval History and Heritage
Resources for "Women at Work"
- Rosie the Riveter: Women Working During World War II, National Park Service
- Rosie Pictures: Select Images Relating to American Women Workers During World War II, Library of Congress
- Women in War Jobs - Rosie the Riveter, Ad Council
- Emma Belle Petcher: Working on airplanes, from The War, PBS
- Emma Belle Petcher: Into the work force, from The War, PBS
- Jeroline Green: Working at McClellan, from The War, PBS
Resources for "Women at Home"
- Power of Persuasion, The National Archive
- Rationing and Recycling, from The War, PBS
- Katharine Phillips: Shoes were precious, from The War, PBS
- Barbara Covington: Cardboard shoes, from The War, PBS
- Anne DeVico: Letters to the Troops, from The War, PBS
Activity Three: The Faces of War
After the students have experienced an in-depth look at the three different phases of women's efforts during the war, they will need to select their "characters" (i.e. one of the pictures of a woman during World War II provided by the teacher) for their projects. Regardless of how the teacher decides to distribute the pictures, the process tends to be a bit more exciting when the students select their pictures blindly (presenting the pictures face down is a simple way to achieve this).
While sitting in their seats, each student should "dissect" his/her picture. To assist with this, the teacher might find it helpful to present a number of guiding questions to the students:
- What would you guess is the age of the woman in your picture?
- How would you describe her emotions at the moment the picture was taken? Happy? Upset? Serious?
- Given the scene in the picture, to which phase(s) of the women's war effort would you guess she contributed? That is, was she a woman at war, at work, or at home?
- What might be some of the challenges she faced during the war? What might be some of her proudest moments and/or achievements?
- Students might also want to start to brainstorm and bring their character to life by creating a name, a hometown, and a family background for their characters.
If time and resources allow, students should then be instructed to use the school library and/or computer lab to conduct in-depth research focusing in on his/her character. In essence, this will allow the student to begin his/her project under the supervision, and with the assistance of, the teacher.
American Women During World War II: The Faces of War (attached above)
Note: The teacher will need to acquire a collection of pictures of American women playing various roles during World War II to distribute to the students. Each student will receive one picture and it is helpful if each student has a different picture. The World War II Gallery from the National Archives has excellent collections of World War II photographs.
Students can conduct an oral history assignment whereby they interview a woman who lived during World War II. Areas of focus might include how World War II affected the interviewee's life during the war years and if/how her life changed in the years and decades that followed.