#507) The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1980)
OR “I’m With Her”
Directed by Connie Field
Class of 1996
The Plot: During WWII, as men were sent overseas to fight for our country, 19 million American women were called upon to take over the men’s work at shipyards and factories, helping to make wartime munitions and other supplies. These women were often typified as “Rosie the Riveter“, a fictional ideal of the hardworking American woman. After the war, the soldiers returned home, and these women more or less resumed their lives as housewives. In 1980, filmmaker Connie Field interviewed five real-life Rosies (Wanita Allen, Gladys Belcher, Lyn Childs, Lola Weixel, and Margaret Wright) to get their side of the story. What follows is a tale of discrimination and sexism, contrasted with wartime government propaganda hailing these women as heroes.
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a synopsis of the documentary, and…that’s it. No superlatives, no essay: just a rundown of the movie.
But Does It Really?: “Rosie the Riveter” is a compelling examination of an underrepresented era of women; lost between the first two waves of feminism, and reappraised through the lens of the second wave. By zeroing in on the stories of five women, Connie Field highlights an engaging cross-section of the millions of Rosies across the country. At a brisk 65 minutes, “Rosie” is one of the rare NFR entries that I wish was longer; but at any length, “Rosie” is an important historical document, and has earned its place on the Registry.
Everybody Gets One: During the late 1960s, Connie Field was an organizer for both the feminist and anti-Vietnam War movements. Her experience working for the independent distribution company Newsreel got her interested in filmmaking. In 1974, while working for Cine Manifest in San Francisco, Field learned about a Rosie the Riveter reunion that had taken place in Oakland, and thought the subject would make a good documentary. Field recognized that the issues the Rosies faced in the ‘40s were similar to the feminist issues of the ‘70s. In her own words, “It had a very strong current day relevance – plus it was fun and campy.”
Title Track: Though obviously not written for this film, Rosie the Riveter had her own song. Sure, it’s wartime propaganda, but it’s so catchy! I’ve been humming it for days!
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite a slew of critics awards for Best Documentary, “Rosie the Riveter” failed to receive an Oscar nomination. Connie Field would receive her first (and so far only) Oscar nod for her 1994 film “Freedom on My Mind“, a look at voter oppression in 1960s Mississippi.
- Before we go any further, it should be stressed that Rosie the Riveter is not, I repeat, NOT the woman in the “We Can Do It!” poster. That poster was commissioned by Westinghouse to motivate their workers during the war, and would eventually be conflated with the Rosie mythology when the poster resurfaced 40 years later. There was an official painting of Rosie the Riveter by Norman Rockwell in 1943, but that doesn’t appear as often due to copyright concerns from the Rockwell estate.
- No one can conclusively determine who was the original inspiration for Rosie the Riveter; suffice it to say that any woman named Rose or Rosie who worked during the war has a legitimate claim to it.
- The women interviewed for this film are just five of the over 700 Connie Field interviewed as part of her research. Field selected the five based on their diversity, as well as their camera-friendly personalities.
- There’s a lot to unpack about the history of sexism in this country, but my main takeaway from this film is that it took a World War for us to recognize women as integral, contributing members of society (women played a similar role in the first World War, but there’s not as much surviving material). Adding insult to injury, the Rosies were often referred to in propaganda as “The Hidden Army”. Men are the worst.
- This film’s main attribute is its ironic usage of ’40s newsreels. In almost every instance, the newsreels’ message of women helping with the war effort is contrasted with contemporary recollections from the Rosies about the difficult working conditions. Speaking of…
- As unfortunately expected, there is a lot of screentime devoted to the endless sexism and racism the Rosies had to endure while working. They encounter everything from being paid less than their male/white counterparts, to one company closing off the workroom showers rather than integrating them. Most of this is discussed by the women with a bit of nervous laughter and a sort of off-handed “that was then” mentality. I wish I could say it got better.
- It was only a matter of time before the Rosies started unionizing, which makes this the fourth NFR movie regarding unions that I’ve covered in the last three months. Still don’t know what to make of that.
- “Rosie” makes effective use of period songs to emphasize points during the film. A section about the women having their own income (some for the first time) is punctuated with Benny Goodman’s “Minnie’s in the Money”. Good use of the song, but it’s giving me some terrible “The Gang’s All Here” flashbacks. Make it stop!
- It’s interesting to watch the discussion of wartime racism towards African-Americans with the added knowledge that the Civil Rights Movement was less than a decade away. While the early seeds of that movement were planted during Reconstruction, WWII was the final precursor, bringing up the point that we still segregated our African-American citizens, yet expected them to fight for this country alongside the white population.
- This may be the first NFR film I’ve covered with the oft-used stock footage of sailors returning from the war and kissing every woman in sight. I guess consent hadn’t been invented yet.
- The last third of the film covers the immediate aftermath of the war, with millions of women being fired or laid off to make way for the returning men. Most women went back to being housewives, others continued to look for work, usually ending up as secretaries or assistants. Among those urging women to return to their previous lives was Dr. Marynia Farnham, who wrote an entire book about women in post-war America, even calling the feminist movement “a deep illness”. You can cut the irony with a knife.
- Lola Weixel gets the final word in the film, saying that despite all the hardships she and her fellow Rosies endured, she felt that America had a lot of love for women during the war years. “I hope for that feeling in this country again, but not for a war.”
- Connie Field is still making documentaries that shine a spotlight on underrepresented social issues. In 2018 she gave us two films: “Oliver Tambo: Have You Heard From Johannesburg” and “The Whistleblower of My Lai”.
- Not a lot of information about what happened to these five women after the war, but most of them engaged in some form of social activism, or spoke on their wartime work at screenings of the film. Margaret Wright gained some notoriety in 1976 when, and this is absolutely true, she ran for President with Dr. Benjamin Spock as her running mate.
- There are still a few real-life Rosies with us as of this writing. One, 94 year-old Mae Krier, is even helping make COVID masks!