Lesbian Fiction Herstory


Rosie and The Great Gulf

© 2005 by Lori L. Lake

Part 5 of 5

"All the day long whether rain or shine
She's a part of the assembly line
She's making history, working for victory..."


The 1940s proved to be a difficult time for lesbians in publishing. War in Europe had begun brewing in the previous decade, and by 1941, the United States was embroiled in it. Gay and lesbian elders from that time have consistently confided in me that many of them thought this might just be the end of the world, and because of that, many women-and even more men-tossed aside social strictures regarding homosexuality, and (as one 82 year old gay relative recently put it), "we let it all hang out."


You could call the decade of the Forties the great gulf. While some novels and autobiographies were published in the 1930s and the 1950s, I haven't been able to find any for the 1940s. In the very early 1940s, one "novel" that was enjoyed by lesbians was Diana Frederic's 1939 work, Diana: A Strange Autobiography. To this day, authorship of this book is not known, and although the book is called an autobiography, it reads like a novel. Like Gale Wilhelm's Torchlight To Valhalla, Frederic's book acknowledged the wider culture's condemnation and suppression of lesbian love while she also wrote positively and hopefully of lesbian life and love. This work was definitely the exception.


The lack of books published by and about lesbians during this decade had to do with the times. While circles of poets, writers, and political thinkers such as W.H. Auden, Evelyn Waugh, and Christopher Isherwood were writing steadily of homosexual issues, American women in the 1940s didn't have the same opportunities. They were busy with the war.


So many men went overseas to fight in WWII that there were not enough left behind to do the work that supported the war industry or the country. For the first time in history, white women and women of color were pressed into service in realms previously reserved almost exclusively for white men. Many women who identified as lesbian, and straight women as well, chose to pitch in to do heavy work like riveting and assembling aircraft, welding military equipment, and building machinery and parts. Of course, women were lucky to earn half what the men made for the same jobs.


Somewhere between six and seven million women toiled to build planes, bombs, tanks, weapons, and machinery that eventually helped win WWII. Many thousands more also joined the military as members of the Army WACs, Navy WAVES, Air Force WASP, or Army Nurse Corps, or worked in civilian administrative or nursing positions. In an environment where people thought the world might come to an end, strong bonds - sometimes of true love - were forged between women laboring alongside one another both in the factories at home in the States and also all over the globe wherever they were stationed as support workers. Pressed into service from every hamlet, town, and city lesbians found each other.


Prior to WWII, women were encouraged to marry, stay at home, and raise children. Amazingly, it seemed like overnight the dominant cultural message changed as the government, the press, and people in communities all across the nation encouraged women to step up and do the work of absent soldiers.

The first mention of a new cultural heroine, Rosie the Riveter, was in the 1942 song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. The song was hugely popular and was soon followed by a Saturday Evening Post cover (right) painted by Norman Rockwell, which was also entitled "Rosie the Riveter." Women in the factories by then were all referred to as Rosies, and the most famous poster of all, paid for by the Westinghouse Corporation and published in winter 1944, was the picture below. Sixty years later, you can still get this poster. Women still wear t-shirts, use coffee mugs, and adorn their walls with the simple image of a strong-looking female flexing her muscles.


Rosie the Riveter,
a painting by Norman Rockwell, 1943

Popular Knock-off of the Rosie
the Riveter theme by a U.S.
manufacturing company

I know that the myth of Rosie the Riveter doesn't fit neatly into this category of the Herstory of Lesbian Novels, but the symbol is so strong, so compelling, that I can't ignore it. The changes of the 1940s let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. Women who had never before worked outside the home went out into the world and earned a living wage. Women who had never traveled went where the U.S. military sent them. Women who had been sheltered and who expected to be some man's wife suddenly found themselves working with drills and welding equipment, assembling mechanical parts, and sometimes supervising crews of workers. Many of them found themselves working with all classes and colors of women - and men, too.

Even after the war years ended and a glut of men returned and took away the higher-paid industrial jobs, women continued to be an integral part of the workforce. Perhaps the nation assumed that women's foray into industrial work was temporary, but many of the Rosies did not. And from these small seeds, sown throughout the country and the world, grew what became - in subsequent decades - a mighty rebellion, which we'll look at next month.

Resources

Here are three great books about the Rosies and the women of WWII:

Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II by Penny Colman

Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda During World War II by Maureen Honey

Lives of Lesbian Elders: Looking Back, Looking Forward by D. Merilee Clunis, Ph.D, et al

CLICK HERE if you'd like to read the words to the song, "Rosie the Riveter."

CLICK HERE if you would like to buy a terrific choral CD called "Cradle of Fire" by the Indianapolis Women's Chorus which has a version of the "Rosie the Riveter" song on it.

CLICK HERE (and scroll down) if you'd like to see the actual sheet music and lyrics for "Rosie the Riveter."

There's a Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Located in Richmond, California, it contains a Rosie the Riveter Memorial honoring women's labor during the war. When it was dedicated on October 14, 2000, two hundred real-life Rosies, all of whom were in their late 70s and early 80s, attended the dedication ceremony.

If you are curious to learn about a particular topic or have information to share, please write to me at:
Lori@LoriLLake.com

Until next time!

Lori

This page last updated on October 21, 2016

Go to other parts of the Lesbian Herstory Series:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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