Being Rosie the Riveter

American Icons, Hometown Heroes, People
on July 23, 2009
Vasha Hunt Fran Carter strikes the pose of a World War II-era icon, depicted on a poster held by her husband, John.

When Fran Carter, 86, dons blue coveralls, a red and white bandana, rubber-soled shoes and red lipstick to portray Rosie the Riveter-the cultural icon of the working American women of World War IIshe knows and plays the part by heart.

In the 1940s, Carter riveted sheet metal onto the fuselages of B-29 bombers at an aircraft factory in Birmingham, Ala. Today, when she puts on the uniform usually associated with Rosie, she does so to honor the legacy and contributions of the millions of women who manned the factories and fields when the men went overseas to fight.

"We weren't women's libbers," says Carter, founder and executive director of the 3,000-member American Rosie the Riveter Association. "We just wanted to get the boys back home so we could marry them. A lot of us did it because we thought the country was worth fighting for."

Several times each month, Carter and her husband, John, 87, visit schools, churches and veterans organizations to share the story of Rosie the Riveter, the fictional charactercelebrated in song and popularized on period posterswho represented the 6 million to 10 million women who contributed to the war effort between 1942 and 1945.

During the war, real-life Rosies built 297,000 airplanes, 88,000 warships, 102,000 tanks and 372,000 artillery pieces, and produced 47 million tons of artillery munitions and 44 billion rounds of small arms munitions. They made uniforms in cotton mills, farmed, drove buses or taxis, worked in defense agencies or did volunteer work. Some served as pilots, ferrying fighter planes and other aircraft from the factories to the training fields.

"Rosie could have been Wanda the Welder or Mabel the Machinist, but a song, along with movies about Rosie, made her the icon," says John, wearing his World War II paratrooper uniform. "Her legacy is the jobs open to women that weren't open to them before the war."

Fran had been a schoolteacher in Thaxton, Miss., when she moved to Birmingham in 1943 to work at the Betchel, McCombs and Parsons Airplane Modification Center. Wearing her factory's uniform of gray coveralls, goggles and a hairnet, she drove rivets through sheet metal, while a woman on the other side of the airplane pressed a brick against the metal to flatten and secure each rivet.

After the war, Fran and John married, had two children, and became professors at Samford University in Birmingham. She taught home economics, and he was dean of the school of education. Now retired, they live in Homewood, Ala. (pop. 25,403), a Birmingham suburb.

Fran was inspired to start the American Rosie the Riveter Association (ARRA) after attending a program in 1997 that featured a dramatic portrayal of the lives of five females employed during the Second World War. The program, conducted annually at the Little White House State Historic Site in Warm Springs, Ga., honored Fran and other real-life Rosies.

"I decided we had a legacy to leave, and the best way to do it was to form an organization," says Carter, who first portrayed Rosie the Riveter in 2001.

ARRA was founded on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1998. The organization has members in 48 states, has published three books of personal Rosie stories and a cookbook, and convenes each June to commemorate and preserve the legacy of the working women of World War II. Any woman who did what traditionally was men's work during the war qualifies as a Rosie. Female descendants may join as Rosebuds. Husbands, brothers and male descendants may join as Rivets.

"Time is against us," Fran says. "Most of the Rosies have already passed away, and we have a hard time locating the ones that are still here because most places didn't keep the employment records of the women. It's important that we get their stories before they all die."