Editor’s note: places like this, Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park, are what makes the national parks system so special. Here we celebrate the role women played in the war efforts of World War Two, a story I am so glad Christian is sharing with us today. For more of his writing, click here to visit his index page.
Admittedly, Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park is somewhere I went for the first time only because I’m on a mission to visit every national park site. I’ll also admit that the second time that I went was only because a friend texted me while I was on a road trip and told me I was going to be passing by the park. Even so, I think Rosie the Riveter is one of the most effective parks for visualizing how the United States became the United States that it is today.
Rosie the Riveter NHS is located in Richmond, California. The actual NHS visitor center is in the middle of what was once an industrial powerhouse. Now it’s a relatively sleepy warehouse district near the Columbia employee store, a couple of enterprising restaurants, and a bunch of trucks that are hauling widgets of all shapes and sizes.
Prior to westward expansion, Richmond and the rest of the Bay Area was home to the Ohlone Native Americans. Spaniards arrived in the late 18th century, built a series of missions up and down the California coast, and the region transformed from the Native American hunting and gathering way of life to the more Westernized version of cities and towns.
Prior to WWII, Richmond had grown to be a small Bay Area city with wineries and light industry. Along with the rest of the USA (and perhaps the world), Richmond changed rapidly during World War II. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a Japanese admiral allegedly said they had “awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with great resolve.” Even prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to make America “the great arsenal of democracy.” Richmond, home to Rosie the Riveter NHS, played an outsized role in ensuring FDR’s promise came true. Richmond became a wartime shipbuilding center because its rail and deepwater connections made it a natural site for Henry Kaiser’s shipyards and other war industries.
Virtually every American was affected by the war effort; most had their household commodities rationed so that there were enough supplies for soldiers. Americans participated in scrap drives around the country, collecting metal, rubber, and fiber. Those who shirked their personal duty were reminded frequently that “there’s a war to be won!” Many men went off to war, with American deaths in WWII totaling about 400,000 (for reference, the USA population was only around 132 million at the time).
Many of the men and women who did not actually go fight in the war found themselves in Richmond. Approximately six million women entered the US workforce during the war because of America’s insatiable need for weaponry and supplies for the war effort. In addition, many men who had worked in traditionally male roles (machinist, welder, pipefitter, laborer, etc) left their jobs to go fight. Women were there, capable and ready to fill the need. Initially, women who worked in traditionally male roles were met with condescension and unequal pay. Over time, women proved themselves at least as skilled as men, and women in blue-collar positions because the norm.
Many of these women eventually lost their jobs to returning veterans, but even so, the needle had already shifted. By the time the wartime men had returned home, women had shown that they were fully competent, qualified, and able to perform what had once been “men’s work.”
Women weren’t the only ones shifting the needle. Many people of color had also moved to Richmond and had begun working in professional blue-collar jobs. Many of the people of color who moved to Richmond came to California from the rural South and began making family-wage earnings. Working industrial jobs in Richmond wasn’t easy work, and on-the-job accidents were common. Even so, those who worked here had as much work as they wanted, and earned a living wage – many of them for the first time. As people moved here from around the country, Richmond became a very diverse place.
One of my favorite quotes in the NHS visitor center comes from Henry Kaiser, who said, “You can’t sit on the lid of progress. If you do, you will be blown to pieces.” This rings especially true to me in concert with the visitor center’s informational signs on how the Bay Area became a popular LGBT center. As people moved here from all across the nation, including small towns, many of them found an accepting community for the first time.
World War II and its accompanying deaths, pain, and suffering, is one of the worst atrocities of all human history. I thank goodness that, at least, many brave and hard-working Americans were able to turn the wheels of progress here in Richmond, CA.
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