Growing up in the United States, I remember learning about the impact of World War II on American women. With so many men fighting abroad, it became necessary for women to enter the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and what is perhaps even more striking, they were filling jobs that were highly unusual for women, and they were excelling at them. These women factory workers were represented by the icon of Rosie the Riveter whose slogan was, “We can do it!” Decades after the war, this image continues to be a significant part of the public imagination in America.
While the 1940s was the decade of Rosie the Riveter, the 1950s was the decade of the perfect housewife. This is what they taught me in school. During the war, women experienced a liberation unlike any they had known before, and when it ended, they went back to their homes whether they wanted to be there or not. I remember finding this challenging, but it was not the return to the home that bothered me. It was the limitation on women’s choices. It hurt me to think of so many women living short of their capacity to enrich this world with their minds, their hearts, and their creativity. It was difficult for me to read about, but I know it was even more difficult for women to live. In many ways, the American feminism of the 1960s and 70s was a reaction against the restrictions of the 1950s.
One of the goals of the feminist movement in the second half of the 20th century was to get women back into the public sphere. This is ongoing and extends beyond the United States. In Sweden, for example, there has been so much emphasis on women in the workplace that it is extremely difficult for a woman to stay at home with her own children. The pendulum has swung so far in the opposite direction that a vital choice has been all but eliminated. Even reducing a woman’s choice to a binary of being in the home or being out of it is extremely problematic. The question is not whether to remain at home or to enter the workforce, the question is how we can best be of service to those around us. As mothers—women who have the best interest of the rising generation at heart—where do we need to be, and what do we need to be involved with to fulfill that calling?
To me, Rosie the Riveter is a symbol of women choosing to serve their communities, develop bonds of sisterhood, and grow as individuals. Strikingly paired with the brutality and destruction of wartime is the unique unity that develops within communities unlike anything we see during times of peace. The women that Rosie the Riveter represents were not self-aggrandizing, rather they were responding to a desperate need in their countries and communities. Rosie is a symbol of selflessness, a phoenix rising from the ashes of war. She represents women who chose to develop as individuals to help those around them.
Like Rosie, we can do it! We can choose kindness, we can choose service, we can choose sacrifice, we can choose charity, and we can choose God. What we will find in the process is that these choices will lead to a greater sense of self and far more personal enrichment than choosing self could ever offer. This is the heart of maternal feminism. This is what Rosie taught me.
Written by Elisabeth S. Weagel