Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The "Rosies" of Rockford: Working Women in Two Rockford Companies in the Depression and World War II Eras

Academic journal article Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society

The "Rosies" of Rockford: Working Women in Two Rockford Companies in the Depression and World War II Eras

Article excerpt

The Great-Depression -era image of the "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange and "Rosie the Riveter" from WWII became iconic images of their respective eras. These pictures represent the lives of women during these two time periods. The poor mother with her children shows the difficulties that women and families faced during the Depression. Women struggled to feed and clothe themselves and their families with meager wages while society discouraged mothers from working to preserve the ideal of "bread -winning" fathers. In "Rosie," a promotional image by the United States government, women were promoted as strong individuals and productive citizens because their labor was needed to replace the men who went to war. Despite how memorable these images portrayed the women of their times, they did not reflect women's entire experiences.

Historians have shown how deceptive these images were in respect to women's actual lives. Despite the difficulties involved in finding a job, many women during the Depression era had to work to help their families survive; they could not just be stay-at-home mothers. During the war, many "Rosies" in the nation also worked to feed and clothe their families, and many more women took pride in the work they did. Yet "Rosie" does not show how these women's household duties, or the "second shift" remained unchanged even though they worked "men's" jobs. After the war, women were expected to return to their roles as mothers and wives regardless of their need or desire to work.

Historians such as Alice Kessler Harris and Ruth Milkman have shown how employment was gendered by the early twentieth century. Women's jobs in the economy as a whole were segregated from men's jobs and were also segregated within factories. The rationale was that men needed a "family" wage and women were only secondary earners. This conditioned women's encounter with all jobs and institutionalized the labor market gender structure and popular prejudice that relegated women to low-pay, dead-end jobs. Women's limited job opportunities and the segregated labor industry have been documented in Nancy F. Gabin's, Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935-1975, Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, and Ruth Milkman's Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II. Yet, micro-level analysis of women in a city such as Rockford, Illinois, then the state's third largest city, has been largely neglected. Rockford women's employment reflected both national and corporate expectations for women in the 1930s and 1940s and challenged local ideas of married and single women's role in the home and workplace.1

By looking at women in Rockford, Illinois, an industrial city transformed by World War II, it is possible to look beneath the iconic images to uncover the real lives of women as they lived and transitioned between these two eras. Rockford had its own history of generating strong, independent women. In 1849 Anna Peck Sill started the Women's Seminary, which eventually developed into Rockford College. One Rockford newspaperman of the era had declared it "a women's rights hotbed." The college did influence several notable graduates, such as Julie Lathrop, the first woman to head a federal agency, Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, Catherine Waugh McCulloch, and other champions for women's rights. Most women of Rockford, however, lived according to the conventional expectations of the times. It would take nationally transformative events, such as the Great Depression and World War II, to change the lives of these women. Did job opportunities for Rockford women in the late 1920s to the middle 1940s change? If so, what did this mean for women? How did the Depression and war years economic boom affect Rockford businesses and who they hired? How did societal ideals rather than the free market impact companies' hiring policies regarding women? …

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