Monday, October 19, 2015

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (Clarity Films, 1980)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Thursday night Charles and I watched part of the “Trail-Blazing Women” series on Turner Classic Movies and saw a fascinating 1980 documentary by Connie Field called The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. “Rosie the Riveter” became a slang term during World War II for all the women who were taking jobs in U.S. defense plants to replace the men who had volunteered or been drafted actually to fight the war. The film was a marvelous look at five such women, two white and three Black; the white ones were Lola Weixel from Brooklyn, New York and Gladys Belcher from Richmond, California, and the Black ones were Margaret Wright (heavy-set and with close-cropped hair, she had clearly weathered the years best of the five) from Los Angeles, Lyn Childs from San Francisco and Wanita Allen from Detroit. All came from proletarian backgrounds and leaped at the chance to do defense work, which was not only challenging than the jobs they’d been doing (mostly restaurant work for the white women and domestic service — what else? — for the Black ones) but considerably better paid. Field made the excellent directorial decision to tell her story exclusively with the voices of her five rank-and-file women, interspersed with films of the period (mostly documentaries produced by the U.S. War Department) that showed dramatically how the “line” changed both when the war started and when it ended. The films made in the early years of the war heralded the coming of women into the industrial workforce and hailed them as a necessary part of the war effort. Midway through the war a film came out lamenting that a lot of women were quitting their defense jobs and returning home to their families after buying fur coats and other luxury items that their earnings in the defense plants had enabled them to get for the first time. As the war was drawing to a close and the U.S. government was worried that there’d be a recession, similar to that which happened in the early 1920’s in the aftermath of World War I, and returning (male) veterans wouldn’t be able to find work and become a potentially politically and/or socially restive underclass, so they mounted a full-bore press to get women to accept their “need” to withdraw from lucrative industrial jobs and go back to being housewives and mothers, or if they hadn’t found husbands yet to return to the low-paying work as waitresses and domestics that had sustained them pre-war. Field even dredged up a clip from Dr. Marynia Farnham, co-author of a slimy 1947 book called Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (though Field’s reference incorrectly “pluralizes” the title’s first noun as “Women” instead of “Woman”), who even before her book came out was appearing in government-sponsored documentaries spouting bilge like this: “Catastrophic social forces have propelled American women away from femininity and into careers, at terrific costs to themselves and society. Abandoning their feminine role has made women unhappy because it has made them frustrated. It has made children unhappy because they do not have maternal love. And it has made their husbands unhappy because they do not have real women as partners. Instead, they have become their rivals.”

What’s especially fascinating about Modern Woman: The Lost Sex is not only that its female co-author was an M.D. (which means she presumably had to fight sexism to make it through medical school and get her license to practice) and she gives off the odd stench of hypocrisy Phyllis Schlafly did later (the woman who made her own career — and a lot of money — telling other women they should forsake all that and be good little wives and mothers), but its male co-author was Ferdinand Lundberg, who had a progressive reputation and had written a series of books, starting during the Franklin Roosevelt administration and continuing into the 1990’s (his last book was published in 1994, just a year before he died), exposing the sources of wealth and income inequality in the U.S. His book titles say it all: Imperial Hearst (a “black” biography of William Randolph Hearst from 1936, five years before the release of Citizen Kane; he sued Orson Welles for plagiarism but lost), America’s Sixty Families (1938) — a title which became a byword for privilege among late-1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s Leftists the way “the 1 percent” is today — Who Controls Industry?, The Treason of the People, The Coming World Transformation, The Rich and the Super-Rich, The Rockefeller Syndrome, Cracks in the Constitution, The Myth of Democracy, Politicians and Other Scoundrels, and that final book from 1994, The Natural Depravity of Mankind. Given how, in today’s political and social context, we expect people with progressive economic politics also to be anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-homophobic, it seems inconceivable that someone with Lundberg’s scathingly cynical attitude towards wealth and power should be so anti-feminist — yet Modern Woman: The Lost Sex had enough influence when it was published and for two decades later that some of the early authors in the second-wave feminist movement of the late 1960’s cited it as a particularly loathsome piece of anti-woman propaganda and a compendium of the ideas with which women, including the intelligent women (many of them college-educated in their own right and married to professors or other men in intellectually challenging jobs) beset by the “problem with no name” Betty Friedan wrote about in The Feminine Mystique, had been persuaded to accept the inevitability of second-class status. To me, one of the greatest bits of social progress we’ve made in the past few decades is the extent to which we’ve transcended this idiotic notion that the brains, skills, talents and insights of over half the human race should be ignored or actively rejected just because of their reproductive plumbing. I’m not a “difference feminist” in the sense of believing that women are somehow morally superior to men, but I’m emphatically an “equality feminist” and a believer that the human race can ill afford to waste the potential contributions of the (slightly over) half of it which is female. The women in The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter inevitably had to deal not only with sexism but racism as well; one of the Black interviewees recalled that the white workers at her plant filed a grievance with their union over having to work alongside Blacks — and the union sent a Black (male) representative to hear their grievance. When they objected to his color, he told them that it was going to be him or no one at all that would hear their grievance — and they unhappily accepted the inevitable, worked alongside the Black women, and eventually grudgingly acknowledged that these Black women knew how to do their jobs and were just as good at it as they were.

One particularly poignant part of the movie was how it ended; the women rejoiced at the end of the war and naïvely thought they would be able to keep the relatively high-paying industrial jobs they loved, had proved themselves able to do and were damned good at — and one remembered a traumatic job interview in which she did some sample welding to prove she had the skills and did it so well that the hiring boss said, “If you were a man, I’d hire you. But I can’t, because you’re a woman.” This came at a time when there were no national civil-rights laws protecting people from that sort of open, out-front discrimination, and where the social expectation for centuries had been that if you were a woman, you worked only as long as you had to until you got a man to marry you, whereupon you became his wife, the mother of his children, his faithful servant and his on-demand sex partner. (I remember being shocked when I looked up a California law book in 1975 and found that rape was defined as forcing a woman other than your wife to have sex with you — California didn’t make it illegal to rape your wife until 1977. Look at that year number and let it sink in that even in a progressive “blue” state it took that long for the legislature to declare that the marriage license wasn’t a blanket permission slip for a husband to force himself sexually on his wife no matter what she wanted.) I’ve watched enough old movies to note how many companies had employment policies flatly prohibiting married women from working (and often the plots of these films turned around the need for both the man and the woman to hold jobs but to keep their marriage a secret because then she would be fired and they’d take a financial hit they could not afford — either that or the couple had separated but not divorced, and the woman had to conceal that she’d ever had a husband to get the job she needed to survive). The whole mindset that women were the chattels of men — and the corollary during the war years that the government, the private companies that did the war production, and society as a whole were grudgingly accepting the need for women to work during the national emergency but expecting them meekly to return to their families or to menial jobs after the war — seems spooky and almost bizarre now (even though it’s still the norm for women in all too much of the Third World), and while we bemoan the slow pace of political and social progress and worry about a period of high-energy reaction, women have at least reached a beachhead in the struggle for economic inequality and today it doesn’t seem as odd as it would have in the late 1940’s that women would want jobs as welders or as corporate executives.