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.
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?