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Real-Life Rosies: Women at Work in Wartime

Color portraits of the ladies who inspired Norman Rockwell's “Rosie the Riveter.”

Seventy-five years ago, on May 29, 1943, Norman Rockwell's iconic painting, "Rosie the Riveter," made its debut on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Donning a red bandana with a rivet gun on her lap and her foot resting comfortably atop a copy of "Mein Kampf,” Rockwell's Rosie (which he based on Michelangelo’s painting of Isaiah at the Sistine Chapel) remains a powerful symbol of American women and their critical contributions to the war effort. Here, photos taken between 1942 and 1943 at factories across the U.S. offer a glimpse of the hard-working women who kept America running when it needed them most.

I'm Every Woman Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images I'm Every Woman In January 1942, just a month after the raid on Pearl Harbor, 60 widows whose husbands had died in the attack applied for jobs at aircraft companies in Burbank, California. “Keep ‘em flying to avenge our husbands’ deaths” was their rallying cry. Their efforts sparked the U.S. government’s “Rosie the Riveter” campaign, and inspired thousands of other American women to literally roll up their sleeves and get to work. (Pictured: A Douglas Aircraft Company employee puts the final touches on the nose section of a Boeing B-17 Navy bomber in Long Beach, California; 1942.) Can't Hold Us Down Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Can't Hold Us Down Speaking on the importance of women’s wartime efforts, Sybil Lewis, an African-American riveter for Lockheed in Los Angeles, explained, “You came out to California, put on your pants, and took your lunch pail to a man’s job. This was the beginning of women feeling that they could be something more.” (Pictured: A woman at the Douglas Aircraft Company is trained to do vital aircraft engine installation; 1942.) Girl on Fire Bernard Hoffman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Girl on Fire A welder shows off her flame at the Electric Boat Company (later General Dynamics Electric Boat) in Groton, Connecticut, where more than 70 submarines and 400 PT (patrol torpedo) boats were assembled during the war. Run the World Buyenlarge/Getty Images Run the World During WWII, the number of women in the workplace increased significantly. In just five years, the percentage of female employees that made up the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to 37 percent. By 1945, about one in every four married women worked outside of the home. (Pictured: Workers install fixtures to the tail of a B-17 bomber at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant; 1942.) Man! I Feel Like a Woman Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Man! I Feel Like a Woman Despite their crucial contributions to wartime efforts, women often received 50 percent less pay than their male counterparts — a gap that’s closing, but still persists today. (Pictured: An assembly worker takes her lunch break next to heavy bomber parts at Douglas Aircraft Company; 1942.)
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Buyenlarge/Getty Images Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Single Ladies PhotoQuest/Getty Images Single Ladies Two technicians work with complicated wiring for patrol bombers in Downey, California; 1943. I'm Coming Out Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images I'm Coming Out Douglas Aircraft employees inspect wing parts of C-47 transport planes in Long Beach, California; 1942. Rebel Girl Bettmann/Bettmann Archive Rebel Girl After the war, many women who had grown to enjoy the financial independence that came with working wanted to keep their jobs. Ultimately, almost all of them were laid off, as male soldiers returned home and military production slowed. (Pictured: A worker assembles bullets on an assembly line.) Independent Women Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Independent Women Though it would take decades before a majority of American women would once again enjoy the freedoms and responsibilities that come with employment outside the home, their contributions were not soon forgotten. As LIFE magazine put it in August 1943, “In time of peace they may return once more to home and family, but they have proved that in time of crisis no job is too tough for American women.” (Pictured: Two workers inspect tubing for an A-31 dive bomber at the Vultee plant in Nashville, Tennessee; 1943.) Respect Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images Respect Two North American Aviation Company employees work on the cockpit shell of a B-25 bomber in Inglewood, California; 1942.

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