Sunday, August 06, 2006

Counting Cherry Stones: Rosie the Riveter

All the day long, whether rain or shine,
She's a part of the assembly line.
She's making history, working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter.

Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
Sitting up there on the fuselage.
That little frail can do more than a male can do.

Rosie's got a boyfriend, Charlie.
Charlie, he's a Marine.
Rosie is protecting Charlie,
Working overtime on the riveting machine.


Is this what liberation looks like?

These days she's her own icon. A minor American Goddess for a major American Century, emblazoned on posters, key-rings, T-shirts, badges and other spaces dedicated to devotional display. Fridges, for example. She's a feminist icon too, at least for a particular strand of feminism.

"We Can Do It!" she proclaims boldly, displaying the muscular strength in her good right arm. Her stare is level: the arc of plucked eyebrows, the mascara artfully-thick on those lashes, the red luciousness of her lipstick diminishes the seriousness of her gaze not one little iota. "We Can Do It!" Jaunty but nevertheless determined in the polka-dotted headscarf covering her hair.

Rosie is feisty and feminine. Strong and (hetero)sexy. Binaries fall before her gaze like so much wool from the shears, like scales from the eyes. Hence her divinity, hence her iconography.

But who are the "We"? And what is the "It" that "We" can do?
And just what was the history that Rosie was making?

Like all goddesses, Rosie predates herself. At least some of her foremothers lie over the Pond, entangled in the tall tale of 'How The Vote Was Won.' When World War I broke out the Pankhursts, 'First Family' of U.K. feminism fractured: Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst suspended hostilities, ceased calling for suffage and urged women to enter the munitions factories. Which many did: it was good pay and what pay wouldn't do, loyalty to Empire would.

But my affections lie with Emmeline's awkward and contrarian daughter Sylvia, who was having none of it. A pacifist, expelled by her family from the Women's Social and Political Union in 1914; she later got chucked out of the Communist Party of Great Britain for good measure. She endured forced feeding, was imprisoned for sedition and argued with Lenin. Her life began in Manchester and ended in Ethiopia: she was an emigrant. She never did master the art of going along to get along. Anything that could be done an easy way, she inevitably found the hard way. Stubborn and obdurate. People like that should be loved (though they seldom are) for their lack of expediency and their mulish honesty. Their beliefs might shift with time, but their truthfulness does not.

I digress.

Rosie had her forerunners: they built the shells with which much of World War I was fought and in their day they too were seen as 'liberated.' Breaking new ground. Proving themselves worthy. New Women, not like those Old Women. According to the Official Historical Narrative, their willingness to be militarised was rewarded with the Vote. But isn't that the way with new godesses? Don't they always eat the memory of their mothers? How else could they be so brand-spanking-shiny new? So iconic, so stripped of the messiness of life. And contrarian Sylvia? Relegated to the margins, to the footnotes: she too is history. Perhaps there are worse fates -- at least on the sidelines one is less likely to be chomped upon.

Who are the 'We'? And what is the 'It' that 'we' do?

'We' are the women who consent to be militarised believing that militarisation leads to liberation. 'We' believe that consenting to militarisation will give us the power to protect those whom we love; that it is a means by which women will finally be treated as men's equals; that it is a means to economic freedom; that it is a means of political equality; that it is how 'we' women can gain the respect which 'we' have for so long wanted. And because 'we' have hungered for respect, because 'we' have hungered for liberation, 'we' grasp the proffered militarising hand that promises those things without asking too many awkward questions.

This is an old delusion; a long-standing hysteria.

As for the 'It?' Well, it's not just riveting any more: it never was. We nurse. We weld. We manufacture. We crack codes. We buy war bonds. We invest. We sell arms. We go out and buy, buy, buy to keep confidence high. We enlist. We fly planes. We cook. We shoot guns. We break down barriers. We challenge sexism. We're strong and (hetero)sexy, just like Rosie. We do what we're asked. We do what we're told. We even tell people how we could do it better given half a chance. And we believe that this will be our independence, our liberation, that this time, proving that 'We Can Do It!' will make us free. And above all we believe that this is feminism and that we are feminists. Look at Rosie -- how feisty she is, how feminine: is she not the image of feminism? Isn't she divine!

Looking for power in the wrong places.

61 years ago today, the U.S dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was dropped from a B-29 built at the Martin Bomber Plant in Omaha, Nebraska. 40% of the workers there were women: most likely Rosie riveted bits of that plane together. That bomb (I was about to say Hiroshima, but the city was not the bomb despite the way in which they have become synonymous with each other) still claims about 5000 lives a year: about half of those are presumably women and the other half are those whom some woman, somewhere, loved, whether as mother, sister, wife, lover, daughter, niece or last but not least, friend. Three days later, they dropped another bomb on Nagasaki. And Rosie's rivets held again.

So. What does Rosie have to say to those women's corpses and the corpses of those whom they loved? What does "We Can Do It!" mean to them?

Is this what liberation looks like?

9 Comments:

Blogger dove said...

Obviously, I don't think it is. Nor would I wish to be a part of that 'we.'

8/06/2006 11:03 pm  
Anonymous scribe said...

Whew. This one left me with so many thoughts/reactions flying into each other no way can I sort them all out here. Among them was.."Oh my god NO..don't ask me to give up ROSIE, too!" (along with rest of a whole lifetime of imbedded beliefs about how execptionally "good" my country is, and the literaly worship of the military I was infected to the bone with before I was three yr's old)

But not my Rosie..how can I let Rosie go? Even understanding as I do now, what "milatism" really is, and how destructive a force it is, I have to leave Rosie in her place of honor on my own refrigerator, and I'll try to eplain why, off the cuff.

Change has to start somewhere It often needs a crisis or catastrohhe to ignite it.

Before the war. You have to go back to see what womens lives were like back then, before the war, to understand why I can't let Rosie go. You have to try to imagine strong women having NO outlet for exercising thier power except in the submissive roles of wife, daughter.

I think of how incredibly liberatng and empowering it must have felt for the Rosies to get the hell out of the kitchen into the factories. To have a chance to LEARN new skills to see what they could DO..besides changing diapers. To be able to develop muscles on all levels,that never had a chance to devlop. It took a war to blast women out of thier given roles, to give us a chance to become more of who we are...

Then there is this: the times. The times were so incredibly different than they are now, I don't know how to even begin to describe it. Patriotism was the most beautiful word in the language then. They had no access to any information that could possibly have diluted that intense love of country by even one drop. Their husbands and fathers and brothers were laying thier very lives on the line for Anmerica. Every rivet Rosie drove was for them, to keep them safe, so they could come home.

Women do whatever women have to do to protect those they love, no holds barred, and they do it in whatever ways, with whatever information they have acess to, and by any means they have at hand at the time of threat to those they love.

So Rosie will keep hjer place on honor on my refrigerator, for what she symbolizes: the inredible power and courage of women who have found a way to blend their powerful feminine energies with thier own natural portion of masculine energies, to create a balanced, whole and powerful being who can fight AND nuture, with courage AND compassion.

The Rosies of then, and the Rosies of now are not all that different. We're just doing different things with our own power now...because along with being very strong, the Rosies are smarter than ever.

Thanks for getting the brain cells off to a jump start this morning, Dove! Your writing is simply exquisite!

8/07/2006 1:18 pm  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

The first thing I thought of after reading this is how many western women today work full time jobs outside the home, and then come home and attempt to cram the full-time plus job of parenting and home-making into whatever little slice of time is available to them before they must prepare to go back into the public street to their job.

As terrible as this is for the woman, her children, and her family members who seldom see her, and when they do can only remark on how exhausted she looks, please know that I am not speaking of single mothers only!

In too many homes, the lady is obliged to fill all the roles while the husband lolls before the TV, or enjoys a few rounds of golf, or a workout at the gym.

So "Rosie" has actually been "liberated" to do more of the society's work in order to give her brothers more leisure time.

And today, in the Unites States, a Rosie who stays home by choice is a rarity - a very affluent rarity, either independently wealthy or married to a husband who earns a very large income, because it is not realisitic to care for a family on one "average" income only. The plight of the poor is a whole other thread.

I know from personal observation (I am proud to say of descendants as well as others) that it is not necessary that Rosie suffer so from her liberation. Men are quite capable of caring for little ones, preparing meals, even doing household chores. And do them as Rosie's equal, I am not speaking of the man who takes out the trash and then settles in to his easy chair, feeling quite proud of himself for having done a little something for the little woman.

Instead of going to the gym, Rosie's husband can take the kids outside to play ball, or to the park to swing and slide, while Rosie enjoys a bit of time to herself, which she will hopefully spend in a bubble bath with a good book, and leave the piles of laundry for father to worry about when he returns from teaching their offspring the One True Way to kick a soccer ball.

Some household tasks can be done together, giving the couple more time to spend with each other, even if it is spent over a sink of suds debating who will wash and who will dry.

In short, Rosie must now claim Phase Two of her liberation. The wife and mother of a family is not a servant, whether she also works outside the home or not. Fathers have home responsibilities even if the mother is at home all day, and where both spend their days in the street, both share the task of liberating Father to pack the little lunches for the next day, remembering which of his wife's clothing may be put in the dryer and which not, and cooking a decent pot of rice.

And in some communities, it will be possible to have a professional come in and do the "heavy cleaning" once a week, without exploitation, for under a hundred dollars, which can be gotten by changing a family outing to the movies or a sporting event to a trip to Blockbuster and a call to the pizza parlor, which will have the added benefit of giving the family more time together that is not spent in stadium or megaplex traffic, and if the pizza is one containing many vegetables, that will also be more nutritious than the junior mints or poultry part "hot dog" that would have been consumed.

OK, I am rambling, my point is that Rosie should not allow herself to have been "liberated" merely so that she can work harder and longer.

8/07/2006 7:55 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Thanks scribe,
Well you have my brain cells working too, for what it's worth.

I'm not asking you to give up Rosie exactly, though I guess I'm going to try and explain why I did so.

I do not see her as a liberatory figure and nor do I see liberation in her First World War foremothers for that matter. I see a kind of manipulation in service of militarisation. Rosie is an icon that certain men (and for the most part they were not feminist men) constructed because it suited their purpose at that particular historical moment for female arms manufacturers to be characterised as liberated: in a sense I think the extent to which she has been adopted and internalised as an icon for women's liberation demonstrates how successful that construction was.

My quarrel with Rosie -- which I suppose is also my quarrel with those who chose to embody her -- is not that she is a male invention. After all, every one of us is an invention of some kind, a construction though certainly no less real for that.

My quarrel with her is two-fold:
at its heart lies the fact that I think she -- wittingly or unwittingly -- tried to buy her liberation with someone else's oppression. Other people's deaths. And more trivially, I think she was well-and-truly short-changed on the deal: after all the twin-cult of femininity and domesticity that Betty Friedan deplores as blighting the lives of white middle-class U.S. women was a product of the post-war period. the late 1940s and 1950s. With servicemen returning, 'Rosie' was surplus to requirements in manufacture and those binaries re-emerged pretty quickly.

I don't doubt for a split second that many of the women working in those munitions factories -- whether they came there from domestic service, or from farm-work, or from shops, or indeed whether it was actually their first entry into paid employment --experienced that work and the relatively high wages it attracted as liberatory. None.
And I don't doubt that they thought they were protecting men they loved, defending their country, being good patriots and so on. The sincerity of their motives (and of their perceptions for that matter) is not something I would seek to contest.

Certainly the protecting 'our' men / patriotism bits of that construction were not particular to women arms workers in the U.S. but were found on pretty much all sides of that war. (And usually the liberation trope figured in one way or another, though what was meant by liberation varied considerably from place to place).

Anyway, it's not the sincerity of their motives that I'd question: it's the morality of their motives. The women who took these jobs were political and moral creatures, responsible for their actions as are we all. They cannot have done those jobs without knowing on some level that they had become part of an apparatus for killing people -- and for the most part I suspect they did so enthusiastically, for all of the reasons mentioned above. And obviously too, that period was not devoid of its own tactics for dehumanising the 'enemy.'

The propaganda of patriotism was certainly writ large then, probably even larger than it is writ now. But then too there were people who did dissent, who did refuse to be a part of that apparatus: then as now, there were cracks in the facade. Refusal was not impossible and some people did refuse. For my part, that's where I see strength.

Anyway, my 2p.

8/07/2006 11:37 pm  
Blogger Nanette said...

"Killed seven in one blow"

I think this piece crystalizes for me why that fairy tale/morality story kept going through my mind in the first one of the series.

So much of what has been built up for women (or that they have built up for themselves) often seems to have been a result of a false (or sometimes real) sense of military power, or the power of life and death over someone.

Not that there have not been tremendous and hard won gains over the years, but there is still that sense (among many men and even some women) that women were only "given" a leg up because of war, and because they took men's places, not because they made their own places. And that to continue to advance, to take their places at the table, they have to be willing to advance the causes of "society", meaning of a militaristic, oppressive of someone or another somewhere society. Even if not directly anymore.

Hmmm... that's not coming out right. But even today there is a sort of sense that to have "made it" you have to supplant or equal men in a "man's job". And no, I don't think there is such a thing as "men's work" and "women's work", but um... oh well, I might have to rethink how to put this, lol.

Looking for power in the wrong places.

A lot of feminism that arises especially from manism or militarism or capitalism or cruelty in general reminds me of that. Mind you, I've never studied "feminist theory" and my first real introduction to any of it was when I started reading white feminist sites and blogs a few years ago. Mostly, I was completely lost, hadn't a clue what everyone was talking about, or how and why it related to life in general.

I used to get a bit frustrated, wondering when they were going to get to the real stuff. Of course, it didn't take me long ro realize that for them, this was the real stuff. I didn't, and still don't, think people should only talk about what I want them to, or care about what I think should be cared about, and luckily there are now hundreds of different sites talking about all sorts of aspects of feminism and women in general.

But it did, even at the time, remind me of false markers and pathways - although not in those terms, of course, as dove hadn't written it yet ;).

Anyway, I think we are still finding our way and will eventually get around to seeing if there really are mines in those fields.

8/08/2006 1:18 am  
Blogger DuctapeFatwa said...

Well, yes. Rosie was "liberated" in order to better serve the king, both of the kingdom, and of her household.

And even in her liberation, even in that bastion of gender equality, the great America, Rosie still earns 76 cents for every dollar earned by Mr. Rosie, even if their jobs are identical. And when it is time to promote someone, that will probably be Mr. Rosie.

Rosie, like both men and women of ethnic minorities must, as one lady once put it, "do ten times the work and do it ten times better than white men in order to be considered "adequate."

8/08/2006 4:00 am  
Anonymous scribe said...

Dove, clearly we're viewing this one from quite different perspectives, and thats ok too. :)

The one thing I'd offer is this: from where I sit now, armed with all of the tremendous amount information I have now, gained over my lifetime (very little of which which was avaliable to those orignal Rosies in thier time) I can follow and even agree with your overall points here.

At the same time, having grown up in the 40 and 50s in small town patriotic, religious America, I know how isolated and cut off women were from the larger world and even from each other. And how almost all women were still completely "dependent" on men for thier very survival, and that of thier children. The wide array of options younger women take for grated today simply did not exist at that time, for most of us. And yes, avid patriotism WAS the only game in town.

When a woman is born into a world like I was,and had no way to know of any other kind of world, and when that entire world is designed to keep her in her place as a helpmeet to men, and every other woman you know of all generations is going along with it as it there is no other way to be...well, I don't know if younger women of today can even imagine that kind of world in any accurate way. Or the kind of incredible courage it took for any women of those times too say "NO" to anything.

Like I said, change has to begin somewhere. And I am sure there were Rosies on those assembly lines who were well aware that they were making killing machines. Like you, i am immensely proud of any women from those times who said 'no" to all of how they were being exploited by the militent men of thier time.

But I am equally proud of the Rosies who did the best they could, in thier own times, with what they knew then, who stepped up and out and became empowered enough to take the next step and then the next step.

I cannot and will not judge them now, as "less than" us, or not as "moral" as us, based perspective of our own times and our own level of enlightement.

How could I do this and NOT also judge all of the Rosies of today, who are out there climbing the same male dominated corporate power heriarchy to make 100K incomes and find sucess as measured by salary, status and material prood of sucess?

As women, we have nothing to gain by denigrating or negatively judging the efforts of those women who came before us, IMO. We have much to gain from learning from them, and appreciating the incredible survival skills and power of women, that centuries of oppression has still not been able to extinquish.

So I will always honor Rosie, for her power, her strength, her courage, regardless of whether I approve now, of how she used it or not. Because it's that power, that strength, that courage, that was her legacy to me and has helped me nuture my own.

8/08/2006 2:24 pm  
Blogger Janet said...

As well as "Stand by your man"... mantra. That somehow your strength comes from how strong you can be for your man... ugh.

I'm been digesting this diary for a few days... not sure what to add.

All I can see is that woman at Ft. Lewis, the military wife... lunging from her car with such hate and anger. ...

I don't see any strenth anymore in supporting anything about the war machine. I see only weakness and grief.

8/08/2006 8:05 pm  
Blogger dove said...

Well a belated reply,

hi scribe -- yes, we probably do have a different take on this which may well be shaped in part by place and time, but which I think probably is also shaped by an attitude towards judgement.

For my part, I do judge, which I know is often frowned on. I try not to make final judgements and certainly I know that people change, but I am judgemental and to a large extent I see that as an obligation.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I think at minimum we have a responsibility to try and judge right from wrong and to be careful about what we do to other people's lives and to be careful about those to whom we entrust other people's lives. Inevitably that last means making judgements about other people.

In a way, I also think what I'm saying is that if we hope to be taken seriously as moral agents (and I do) we have a responsibility to take others seriously as moral agents too, not to assume they were pawns, that they didn't know what they were about. That doesn't mean assuming they were omniscient or infallible or that their choices were unconstrained, but it does mean assuming that they thought about the form and content of their actions and that such thought at least played into many of their decisions.

FWIW, I do cast a critical eye on those who try to climb power structures without attempting to dismantle or transform them -- in a way that's what the last piece in this series was about from my perspective. And yes, to my mind, equal pay has less to do with encouraging more women to become high-flying executives and much more to do with pay equity or revaluing work that has traditionally been underpaid (or simply unpaid) because it has traditionally been female-dominated.

I guess the other thing I'm trying to argue, with this series really, is against the idea that women are innately peaceful, or more innately peaceful than men, less implicated in the social processes of warfare. Certainly I know that I am not innately peaceful, quite the contrary.

Historically women may have had somewhat less opportunity for the commission of some kinds of atrocity: I do not think women have less capacity for such things however and so I guess that part of what I'm trying to do here is to look at some of the ways in which women have been complicit in warmaking, because I think that one of the things that the practice of warfare depends on is women's collective willingness to behave in certain ways as well as particular constructions of gender. (Even that idea of women as more peaceful can be used in service of militarisation I think: it fits so easily as part of a gender binary where 'women are naturally more peaceful,' 'men are naturally more violent' -- which conveniently allows peaceful men to be constructed as 'unnatural' and/or 'less than real men.'

Anyway, a very long-winded ramble on my part.

ductape, yes -- the second shift. Transferring a position of economic dependence within a family unit (because certainly western women were treated as dependents, at the very least legally) for one of economic dependence on an employer is not always a liberatory move as no shortage of 19th-century Mancunian factory workers can attest. The devil is, as usual, in the particulars.

In the Mid-west state that I lived in for some years, women earned about 67c on the male dollar: in light of that I think this article on women's wages immediately after the 1348 plague is an interesting read.

nanette: yes -- I think that's what I see too.

8/11/2006 9:14 pm  

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