This year, the Department of Labor is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Women’s Bureau, a century full of incredible accomplishments by women in the workplace. These accomplishments speak for themselves because now, women work in nearly every industry.
However, today’s women benefit from building their careers upon a foundation cast from the blood, sweat, and tears of women that have come before us. From the women who fought for the right to own property and for suffrage to the industry leaders that forged the path for today’s entrepreneurs, we draw upon other women past and present for both inspiration and experience.
After all, we will never know if Kylie Jenner could have become a cosmetics entrepreneur had it not been for trailblazers like Madame C.J. Walker or Estée Lauder. Had Caresse Crosby not registered her undergarments with the United States Patent and Trademark Office would Sara Blakey been able to sell billions of dollars of Spanx and Assets products? Had Margaret Rudkin not marketed and sold her bread from her home, Pepperidge Farm, in 1937, would Lynda Resnick been able to market Wonderful pomegranates and pistachios?
However, we must not forget that it isn’t just high-profile entrepreneurs who have benefited from this legacy. Whether we are working in factories or offices, flying planes, or building houses, we have all been empowered by the women who came before us.
One group of women who have made a tremendous impact on our lives, both at work and as free citizens, is the Rosies. The Rosies are the 5 to 7 million women estimated to have entered the workforce during World War II to keep the American engine of industry moving as millions of our citizens deployed to fight for freedom overseas.
Called into employment by a government campaign, by July 1942, just eight months after America joined the War, the Women’s Bureau reported that “1 million women were in war employment, twice the number [as] before the Pearl Harbor attack. On the basis of this and the further increase before July, the Department of Labor expects that nearly two million more will be added in another six months.”
The Women’s Bureau reported women working “in airplane plants, operating drilling machines, lathes, power sewing machines, and filing, riveting, and boring devices, as well as on the assembly line; in plants making lenses, bomb sights, precision instruments, and fire-control apparatus, working as assemblers, grinders, honers, drill-press operators, solderers, cementers, welders, engravers, polishers, testers, and inspectors.”
The contributions made by the Rosies to America changed the tide of the War, and kept the armed forces of both the United States and Allies supplied. Rosies sewed the parachutes of our airborne units, and built and tested the TBF Avenger, the plane used at the battle of Guadalcanal. They also built the USS Hancock, the Essex-class carrier that provided air support at Okinawa.
Reflecting on these contributions on the home front, we all must ask: could General Eisenhower have led D-Day on the beaches of Normandy, turning the tide of the war permanently, without the Rosies?
Our great general and president is thought to have believed that women were essential to the war effort. Historian Stephen E. Ambrose wrote in his definitive history of D-Day that, “The contribution of the women of America, whether on the farm or in the factory or in uniform, to D-Day was a sine qua non of the invasion effort.”
Both are right.
Today, women continue to make massive contributions to the American economy and national security. Not only do they serve with distinction as essential workers during COVID-19, but in every field. All of these workers help drive the American dream forward. They are all essential.
This Labor Day, as the director of the only federal agency tasked with focusing on the needs of working women, I want to bring attention to boundless opportunities women have to earn a living.
Rosies proved to our nation and the world that when it came to work, women could be anything. The Rosie test pilots and mechanics of Grumman opened the door for Sally Ride and Judith Resnick to go to space, and even for Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., to be our nation’s first combat-proven female fighter pilot.
Today the Trump administration works to keep the spirit of the Rosies alive. Whether via the Women’s Bureau’s administration of the Women in Apprenticeship and Nontraditional Occupations (WANTO) grant or President Trump’s commitment to expanding opportunities for Americans through the Industry-Recognized Apprenticeship program, this administration is working to enable industries to recruit, mentor, train, and retain women in the very careers that women proved their chops in 75 years ago.
On September 8, the Women’s Bureau will nominate the Rosies to be inducted into the Department of Labor’s Hall of Honor so their contributions to America’s workforce will always be remembered.
Whether entrepreneur, doctor, or factory worker, women in the year 2020 have every opportunity because Rosies not only rolled up their sleeves and cried out, “We Can Do It!” but because “They Did It!”
Rosies got the job done while helping to save the world, but they also allowed for generations of prosperity for American women.
This Labor Day we thank the Rosies!
Laurie Todd-Smith, PhD, is Director of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau.