Before the Japanese air attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, less than one percent of all workers in American aeronautical factories were female. Just two years later, more than 475,000 women would help to manufacture aircraft for the war effort. Another 350,000 would join the Armed Forces.
Due to acute labor shortages throughout the nation, the Office of War Information turned to advertisers for their help with a "Basic Program Plan for Womanpower." The ads would target women who had never before held jobs and, as the plan stated, "These jobs will have to be glorified as a patriotic war service if American women are to be persuaded to take them and stick to them. Their importance to a nation engaged in total war must be convincingly presented."
Women were urged to take all types of jobs, not just positions in defense plants and factories. Without the influx of women entering the work force, according to the Office of War Information, "civilian life would break down." More than six million women entered the work force for the first time, taking jobs as clerks, telephone and elevator operators, and even farmers.
Visitors to the Library of Congress Web site can watch a video presentation by Sheridan Harvey, of the Humanities and Social Sciences Division, who has this to say about Norman Rockwell's Saturday Evening Post cover of Rosie the Riveter (below), the iconic female defense worker: "She wears goggles and a shield. In reality, it's unlikely that she would have worn both.... On her lapel you can see various pins—for blood donation, victory, her security badge.... She's wearing loafers. Only after July 1943 were safety shoes with metal toes produced for women. There had been no need to manufacture these shoes in women's sizes before, because women didn't customarily work in dangerous jobs where such shoes were needed. Most women wore their own shoes."
To hear real-life Rosies talking about their work on the homefront (including work at the Goodyear Aircraft factory, in the Army Air Corps, and at various shipyards), visit the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.