With men off to war and production needs increasing dramatically, the U.S. government launched a propaganda campaign during World War II to pull women into factory jobs traditionally held by men. During the course of World War II, more than 6 million women entered the workforce. Some were driven by patriotism, others by financial necessity. Following the war, many were laid off and returned to their previous roles as homemakers.
Their contributions to the war effort made a lasting impact on Americans’ attitudes toward women in the workforce. But they also made a lasting impact on these women’s lives and the lives of their families. This is evidenced in part by the more than 3,600 newspaper obituaries in Legacy.com’s database that reference women’s roles as “Rosie the Riveters” (a term first used in 1942 to describe WWII’s female factory workers). As we observe Women’s History Month, I encourage you to take a moment to read some of the many stories that can be found in these obituaries:
Marsha Ahl briefly met her future husband of 69 years, William “Bill” Ahl, during grammar school in Santa Rosa. And as fate would have it, the pair later reunited during WWII while working as welders at the naval shipyard on Mare Island. As one of the only female welders (and consistently hailed as the best!) Marsha turned many heads – not only for her dazzling blue eyes and remarkable personality – but for her excellent caliber of work! Bill would find excuses to stand near Marsha’s work station in hopes of catching her eye, but always “Rosie the Riveter”, Marsha continued to forge ahead with her welding. After several weeks of passing by her station, Bill eventually did get Marsha’s attention, and the two were married in 1942. [Real full obituary in the Fresno Bee]
Edna Mae Redman Laws relocated from New Orleans to Portland, OR, where she found employment as a “Rosie the Riveter.” She received her training and certification as an LVN, and began her medical career at Sacred Heart Hospital in Eugene, OR. Her strong commitment to human rights and advocacy was instrumental in Edna being the first Black woman and nurse to hold employment at Sacred Heart Hospital. After rising through the ‘chairs,’ she served as Worthy Matron, Order of the Eastern Star, Prince Hall Grand Lodge. Edna was a civil rights activist for the black population in Eugene during the 1950s and 1960s. In San Francisco she and her best friend Willie Gause founded “The Women of Elegance” school of etiquette. [Read full obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle]
Sophie Morton was born in Wyandotte in 1919, the daughter of Polish immigrants. As the oldest daughter, she had to rely on her own instincts and skills growing up in a new culture to her family. She was an American pioneer, marking a number of firsts for the girls of her generation in the family – the first to attend school, the first to work outside the home, the first to obtain a driver’s license. She was a “Rosie the Riveter,” making machine gun clips for W.W. II military use. She worked from age 13 to her retirement in her mid 60s in jobs including factory worker, cook, and custodian. Wherever she worked, she gained the respect of her employers and the friendship of her co-workers. [Read full obituary in Heritage Newspapers]
Born in Birmingham, AL, Lois Hawkins’ father died when she was 1 year old. She was the youngest of five sisters who were raised by their mother. She was a real life “Rosie The Riveter”. In 1942, she faked her age, and at only 15 traveled alone from Alabama to the Bremerton Ship Yards in Washington State, to help build Victory Ships for WWII. She later returned to Birmingham to work in an aircraft plant building WWII aircraft. [Read full obituary in The Birmingham News]
Antonia Castro Gracia was a pioneer in the women’s movement (1942-1944) as one of the original “Kelly Katies” during World War II. This was San Antonio’s brand of “Rosie Riveter”. The Kelly Katies were a group of largely Mexican American women who were hired to work at Kelly Air Field to replace men who were shipping out during World War II. Women worked as mechanics, painting airplane wings, disassembled, cleaned and reassembled propellers. She was one of these special women. They filled non-traditional jobs to keep the base running while the men were away. She readily volunteered to serve her country as a young 16 year old girl as a Kelly Katie and went on to serve in the Pacific at Hickam Air Field doing the same type of work. [Read full obituary in the Express-News]
Lois Wirgler grew up during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and WWII. Perhaps it was these hard years that made her so strong in character. She had a heart of gold. She was a care giver to family and friends including all kinds of cats. In her younger years she loved to dance, bowl, play tennis and garden. Loie didn’t like to revisit the war years as she lost too many classmates to that war. She served (3 years) in the Merchant Marines driving officers from Coyote Point to Alameda in army jeeps. She was one of the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ girls welding bolts on submarine doors. Loie was the American described by Tom Brokaw in ‘The Greatest Generation.’ She was known as the Werther’s candy lady. Her family will always remember her candy bar drawer and the dinners she put out at the old home on the hill. [Read full obituary in the San Jose Mercury News/San Mateo County Times]
During WWII, Margaret Berry was a real life Rosie the Riveter. She came to Boeing in 1942 from Eastern Washington to work on B-17s where she was a riveter working on the tail section. In her later years, she was active in restoring B-17s at the Museum of Flight. Keeping the legend of Rosie the Riveter alive became a second career for her after she retired from the VA. In her later years, she spoke all over Washington State about her experience and was featured in newspaper articles and in a segment on KCTS TV on local war hero’s experiences. [Read full obituary in the Seattle Times]
Interested in reading more “Rosie” stories? Try searching “Rosie the Riveter” from any of Legacy.com’s newspaper affiliates’ obituary pages.