Symbolized by the cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, most of the women had never worked in the trades, but were called upon to build airplanes, make submarine nets, work in labs and repair military vehicles.
Like it was yesterday, the Rosies remember.
The feel of white cotton coveralls. The squeeze of a hefty rivet gun. The pay — often more than they’d ever earned.
The time was the 1940s. The world was at war and Boeing and other industries needed women to fill in for men who were away fighting for liberty.
Whatever their motives — patriotism, adventure, the chance to get out of poverty — millions of women answered the call from small towns and cities nationwide.
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Their work was symbolized by the cultural icon Rosie the Riveter, the face of the war effort at home. Most of the women had never worked in the trades, but were called upon to build airplanes, make submarine nets, work in labs and repair military vehicles.
What was that like? And what became of them after the war?
At a local event Thursday timed to the start of national Women’s History Month, a dozen Rosies from the Puget Sound area will speak at the Museum of History & Industry about making history and their lives since.
They also will sign and sell copies of a first-of-its-kind 2008 Rosies calendar, which features each woman as she looks now alongside photos of her riveting days.
The calendar was produced to raise money for the nonprofit Washington Women in Trades. The event is “about wisdom and learning,” said Cindy Payne, the trade group’s project manager. The Rosies have “an awful lot to say and incredible gifts to give.”
One of the Rosies is Georgie Kunkel, 87, of West Seattle.
Kunkel taught school during WWII but also worked summers in the war industry — for the Port of Seattle sending equipment to the troops and as a typist and plant worker for Boeing.
“Those who became Rosies thought outside the box, had faith in themselves and knew who they were,” says Kunkel on the calendar’s August page.
In all, an estimated 6 million women entered male-dominated jobs in defense factories during the war effort. An additional 2 million joined as clerical workers. No one knows how many are alive today but, like WWII veterans, their numbers are dwindling rapidly.
Still, for many of the Rosies speaking at Thursday’s event, that early spirit of independence burns bright. Now in their 80s and 90s, they are traveling, writing memoirs, even volunteering to restore war planes.
After the war, Kunkel kept teaching, fought for passage of Washington’s equal-rights amendment, wrote books on feminism and “grandma sex,” and served as president of the state’s National Organization for Women. Now she writes a column for the West Seattle Herald.
Or take Josie Dunn, of Seattle, who had just graduated from high school and was picking cotton in Oklahoma when she joined a federal youth opportunity program that sent her to help the war effort in the West.
“I stayed there, and I liked the work real good,” said Dunn, 89, who started out earning 62.5 cents an hour at Boeing in Seattle and stayed for 50 years.
Then there’s Margaret Berry, 85 and also of Seattle, who never did lose her love of riveting.
With her father’s reluctant approval, Berry left Eastern Washington as a recent high-school graduate to work the graveyard shift at Boeing as a “bucker” in the tail wheel section of a B-17 Flying Fortress.
Soon she was promoted to riveter. As the Rosie calendar explains, a riveter shoots the rivet through the metal and the bucker secures it from the opposite side.
After the war, she moved around the country with her military husband. They settled in this area, and for 21 years she worked in the supply department of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Seattle.
Then in the early 1990s, the Museum of Flight put out the word that it needed help to restore the World War II B-29 Superfortress bomber and the B-17. Once again, Berry answered the call.
Besides her volunteer work on the restoration project, she enjoys being recognized at public events by younger women in the trades.
“If it hadn’t been for you, we probably wouldn’t be out there,” they tell her, shaking her hand.
Marsha King: 206-464-2232 or email@example.com