In a room filled with denim and red polka-dot scarves, a new generation of girls learned about the history of U.S. female empowerment.
The girls, ages 3 to 12, participated in a week-long Flex Visionaries Camp with a Rosie the Riveter-inspired theme. A presentation was given by three original Rosie the Riveters. The co-owner of Flex Studios, Angela Dunham, said it was an incredible honor.
“We are just so honored to celebrate their history with our campers,” Dunham said, as reported by The Register-Guard. “This is an incredible opportunity for us to teach our dancers about female empowerment by learning from these iconic women.”
The Rosies – Dorene Ronning, Opal Nelson and Dorris Graham – and Rosebuds (a name for female descendants of Rosies) – Yvonne Fasold and Karen Meats – talked about their time as Rosies and performed a dance for the young campers. Each of the five women are members of the Mackenzie Chapter of the American Rosie the Riveter Association. The association was formed by Frances Carter in 1998 to honor the women who joined the workforce throughout World War II to back the war effort.
Rosie the Riveter is an iconic name used to embody the women who took up the jobs that men left behind when they went to war. The name is most often exemplified by a war-time poster of a woman flexing her arm while sporting a red polka-dot scarf in her hair and a denim blouse. The image includes the words “We can do it!” According to the ARRA, Rosies were given the responsibility of supplying the war and constructing 300,000 aircraft, 15 million guns and 14 billion rounds of ammunition, etc.
If you were a Rosie, you did the impossible. At the time of WWII, Rosies acquired several jobs, along with the namesake riveter job. Rosies would use air-powered rivet guns in assembly lines that gave them the ability to construct machines at extremely fast speeds. Opal Nelson, a 98-year-old Cottage Grove resident, journeyed with a friend to the Douglas Aircraft Company in Santa Monica, California, looking for a job. She ended up working the graveyard shift in the riveter position. She was only 19 then but she remembers her assembly line turning out aircraft every 28 minutes.
Nelson worked on the Douglas A-20 Havoc, a light attack bomber that the U.S. and Allied forces needed during the war. Nelson said she eventually got bored during the day and decided to volunteer as a nurse at local hospitals in Santa Monica. She showed her nurse’s uniform to the campers. Nelson laughed when she told everyone the uniform still fit her, as long as she didn’t button it. As a whole Nelson said it was a time in their lives that they ultimately forgot about, moved on from and never expected any credit for.
“We didn’t realize the impact of what we were doing,” Nelson said. “We were just kids.”
Even though some women had jobs as nurses or teachers during that time, the Rosies changed the route of women in the work force, and that laid a foundation for the women’s empowerment movement of today. Karen Meats, a Rosebud and Eugene resident, said that the women never expected to be remembered for their contributions and efforts.
“They never expected to get any real recognition or anything,” Meats said. “The men were fighting overseas, they needed people to fill the workforce and they stepped up to do it.”
Meats’ aunt, Dorene Ronning, a 96-year-old Eugene resident and original Rosie, told campers about how she entered the war effort at 19 years of age. Ronning worked at the Oregon Women’s Ambulance Corps based in Eugene, and there she became proficient in CPR and auto mechanics and was put in charge of driving an ambulance to gather the injured in case the war should ever arrive to Lane County. Even though she was not paid for her efforts, Ronning said she’s proud of what she did as a Rosie.
“I learned a lot of things, some of which I still remember today,” Ronning said. “But I had lots of ambition then.”
The campers and their parents chuckled as the Rosies recollected memories, including making their own stockings. Nylons, which in that period sported a dark seam up the back and were worn at work, could not be found, so they got creative.
“If we had a good friend and footstool, she would take an eyebrow pencil and draw the seam up the back of our leg,” Ronning said laughing. “And that would be okay unless it rained!”
“Now that would wash your socks off,” Nelson added.
Dorris Graham, a 94-year-old Cottage Grove resident and Mackenzie Chapter president, remembers dressing up with a friend to go to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthday ball in 1943 at the Wardman Park Hotel.
“We walked in and this beautiful woman came up to us and shook our hands and said, ‘Thank you for coming to the president’s birthday ball,’” Graham said. “It was only after she left that I realized that she was Eleanor Roosevelt.”
Graham typed out war bonds for the U.S. Treasury Department based in Washington, D.C. War bonds provided debt securities given by the government to pay for the war. They were good for everything from war supplies to Rosie paychecks. Graham, who was only 17 then, had just graduated from high school. She said that while some people saved their bonds, she spent hers on shoes, which added excitement to her boring job.
“I sat in a room surrounded by 50 typewriters, and four big windows that overlooked the White House,” Graham said. “So I spent most of my time typing and looking out the window at the same time. It was fun, but boy it was boring.”
In the end Graham found work at the Weather Bureau and was given the responsibility to keep track of where all of the weather reporters were stationed.
The young dancers at the camp surprised the Rosies by performing a dance in complete Rosie the Riveter attire to the Rosie theme song. Rosies love to come to events such as Flex camp, according to Eugene resident and Rosebud Yvonne Fasold. She said that every time they do these presentations, people clap and do things to honor the Rosies, and it makes them feel like royalty.
“It just gives you chills, and they deserve all of it,” Fasold said. “To this day they are so independent, so confident and so positive.”
Fasold’s mother, who has passed away, was an original Rosie. She is Fasold’s inspiration for telling the history of the Rosie’s empowerment movement. That movement is what led Dunham and her fellow business owner Lindsey Shields to form the visionaries camp.
“We really wanted to tap into female empowerment and teach these kids through dance about history and social justice issues,” Shields said. “This is why we’re here. We want to be a studio that can have these difficult conversations.”
The Rosies blazed the trail for women to enter the work force, and since that time, women haven’t left. Ronning said she remembers long days and long nights but mostly that she never thought they’d get credit for what they did.
“By the end of the war in ’45 we were just history,” Ronning said. “But I would do it all again.”
Read The Register-Guard’s story here.