SPICER — Wearing the iconic red-and-white polka-dot headscarf and blue work coveralls of Rosie the Riveter — perhaps the most famous female face from World War II — Ruth Trageser brought a history lesson to life Thursday at the Dethlefs Senior Center in Spicer.
The fictionalized character of Rosie the Riveter is based on several real-life women who responded to the government’s ad campaign encouraging women to join the workforce while men were fighting, and those women ended up building airplanes, ships and munitions during WWII.
Trageser, a former teacher who taught English at Willmar High School and teacher education at the University of Minnesota Morris, researched and wrote a half-hour long monologue on Rosie the Riveter that she’s been performing for various organizations and groups for the last three years.
She called on her skills as an actor at The Barn Theatre and being a “ham” as a teacher, but confessed that when she started creating her Rose character and script she didn’t know much about her.
“I soon conducted some research and decided, as a feminist, I certainly needed to know more about her,” Trageser said in an interview.
“And I learned a great deal, such as there were four women who were depicted as Rosie on various (magazine) covers over the years, and that she represented women in non-traditional fields.”
Delivered with a light-hearted tone, Trageser’s monologue is a combination of WWII history and cultural changes regarding women’s roles before, during and after the war.
“We Rosies are just ordinary women doing extraordinary things during extraordinary times,” said Rosie at the beginning of her performance.
“As the men left their jobs to join the war effort, we women stepped into their shoes and, as you know, the government encouraged this.”
Setting the scene for what it was like for women before the war, she said, “In the 1930s, if a woman took a job she was considered a hussy who was only there to flirt and steal somebody else's husband. But during the war working women were considered patriotic.”
The script includes a statement from President Roosevelt asking every American to do their part for the war effort.
“It was a national call to action spurred by the reality that production was essential to victory and women were essential to production,” she said.
Women filled roles in dirty, gritty jobs like welders, boilermakers and crane operators while still managing the home life, raising kids and making do on rationed food.
“Women did it all,” said Rosie.
While the wages of 60 to 90 cents an hour made the jobs very attractive, she said most signed on “purely for patriotic reasons.”
It’s estimated that during WWII more than six million women joined the workforce.
After the war, however, women were asked to go home.
The monologue touches on the inequity women experienced in the workforce after the war, especially for those who wanted good jobs at good wages.
Magazines that encouraged women to work during the war “turned against us” and ads and articles “now implied families would break under the strain of mother being away,” said Rosie.
“The ads made us feel guilty for not taking a job during the war and afterward they made us feel guilty for wanting one.”
While some believe the Rosies of WWII made a difference for the future of women in the workforce, others believe it had no permanent impact and women’s “secondary status in the workforce” didn’t improve, said Rosie.
While it’s “very painful” to remember how quickly the careers of women ended after the war, they will “never forget that once in America women were told they could do anything. And we did,” said Rosie, ending the performance with the defiant fist and muscle pose.
The performance Thursday was especially poignant since some in the audience actually had female relatives who were Rosies in WWII.
“I’m always surprised by how many people remember having an aunt or a cousin or someone who also participated,” said Trageser, commenting about the response her performance often receives.
She said it’s common for families not to know much about their relatives’ roles as Rosies. “It’s very telling about what happened after the war was over and women were told to go home and be quiet.”
Trageser said there are things women today can learn from Rosie the Riveter, including the rewards of entering non-traditional fields.
Ruth Trageser performs her role as Rosie the Riveter, as well as Alma from the Orphan Train, for groups and organizations across the region. She can be contacted at 320-444-1714.