Back in the 17th century, trade goods from Europe found their way across the Atlantic, changing the life of Native Americans in many ways. Arrow heads of iron and steel, weaving beads of cast glass, yarns and cloth with dyed red colors; tools that saved time and energy. In most cases though, the numerous tribal peoples continued to preserve the “old ways and crafts” as well. Mirrors however were sheer magic and revolutionized family relationships in ways that continue to impress social scientists who specialize in studying the moments of change-in-direction of entire elements of culture.
The division of labor in the Native American or “Indian” (for convenience) family had been established over centuries of real-life experience and tradition. When preparing a warrior for battle (and inter-tribal warfare was a constant in Indian life across North America long before white man entered the picture), it was the woman of the household who meticulously, proudly and lovingly applied her husband’s war paint, stroke by colorful stroke. It was actually a “spiritual” connection between the two; a moment of profound intimacy. With the coming of the mirror the man-of-the-house could paint himself. Doesn’t sound like a big deal? In a very real way, it undercut and reduced the importance and personal power of the woman in the family and community. At a time when the arrival of white man’s alcohol was about to threaten the very foundations of a thousand year culture, the power of a village’s women might have been a bulwark.
In 1940-41, it was clear to U.S. leaders that we were certain to be swept into what was still “Europe’s War”. From England’s experience it was also clear that ways had to be found to compensate for the impact mobilization would have on the manufacturing industry, at the very time vital production capacity would have to expand exponentially. Experts from industry, labor and government were asked to calculate how many of these jobs could be filled with inexperienced women in a wartime scenario. The most optimistic estimates topped out at 20%. By war’s end in 1945, 85% of those jobs – especially those associated with the building of airplanes, ships, tanks, munitions and other new and complex instruments of war – would be filled by female workers.
In 1942 both government and industry got in the business of flooding the media with advertisements urging women to help win the war, developed around an image which was a composite of American “housewives” building airplanes, several of whom were actually named Rosalind. The result was one of the most successful media campaigns in history and the creation of a near-mythological figure named “Rosie the Riveter”.
Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover for Memorial Day, 1943 did much to spread the Rosie image far and wide. The model was a 19-year old Vermont telephone operator named Mary Doyle Keefe. The Rockwell original sold for $5 million in 2002, and Mary Keefe died in April, 2015 at age 94.
It was hoped – and believed – that these war-time “Rosies” would return to the homes they had temporarily abandoned, when the emergency was over. And many did. But several million didn’t, perhaps influenced by new advertisements asking such questions as, “how would you like a new kitchen mixer”?
In key ways however, American culture had been changed forever. It had been proven that women could do almost any job a man could do and even become a “second” breadwinner for a family, thus moving many into or out of the “middle class” category and able to afford a larger home or a second car. Less often mentioned but worth consideration is a marked relaxation of the racial divide and a change in attitude between white and black women who now worked side-by-side and shared lunch rooms and newborn friendships.
And unlike the Native American spouse of an earlier century, American women found themselves with much greater power, in the family, the community and even in the country’s political arena. Many sociologists cite the “Rosie the Riveter” era as the birthplace of the modern “Women’s Movement”.