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Before Rosie the Riveter, There Were the Women of World War I

When it comes to the history of American women's roles in wartime, the symbol is the Norman Rockwell painting of "Rosie the Riveter" from World War II.

But women joining, or being asked to join, the male-dominated war workplace first occurred during World War I. Their contributions had a significant impact not only on the war, but also on the social changes that occurred after the fighting stopped.

These are the findings of a research project focusing on media of the World War I era by Franklin & Marshall College Professor of Anthropology Misty Bastian and her student assistant, Julie Kopperman ’14, an anthropology and sociology major.

"This is all about women changing their gender roles," Kopperman said. "The war did so many things to change what would happen in American history."

  • Rosie Riveter Hackman Summer
  • F&M Professor of Anthropology Misty Bastian (seated) and Julie Kopperman '14 have pored through posters, postcards, newspapers and journals to study depictions of American women's roles in World War I. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

Bastian's and Kopperman's project, "Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women and Work in WWI," will be part of an exhibit on the centenary of the war in fall 2014 at F&M’s Phillips Museum of Art. The First World War broke out in August 1914.

Kopperman is working this summer in F&M’s Hackman Scholars Program, one of 75 students who are collaborating with 43 F&M professors to support faculty research projects.

The Hackman Scholars Program was established through an endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman. In addition to the Hackman Scholars on campus this summer, eight students are working through other grants with four F&M professors.

Bastian's project focuses on media -- posters, postcards, magazines and newspapers -- that promoted the then-radical idea of women working in jobs that it was believed only men could handle, such as factory worker, farmer or ambulance driver on France's battlefields.

"This is the first major propaganda war," Bastian said, noting the media materials are "very specific to women at work in World War I."

One period poster by the YWCA depicts thousands of women dressed as streetcar conductors, plumbers, factory workers and farmers, marching under the banner: "For Every Fighter A Woman Worker."

Another poster depicts a woman telephone operator on the warfront: "Back Our Girls Over There. United War Work Campaign. YWCA."

  • Rosie Riveter Hackman Scholars
  • One of the World War I-era posters from F&M's Archives and Special Collections that called women into the workforce. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

"Over There" was how the war was referred then, and the depiction of the woman operator by a window filled with soldiers was a message women of that era would understand, Bastian said.

"As a switchboard operator, she freed a man to fight," the professor said.

Women also had dangerous roles during the war, in particular as ambulance drivers and nurses, which often put them on the frontlines.

"They were fired upon and some of them were killed," Bastian said.

The media of the time conveyed what is now considered sexist. Women were "the capable sex;" men "the stronger sex," Kopperman said. From a collection of materials owned by Bastian, she showed a 1918 magazine photograph of a woman operating a tractor: "The mighty tractor obeys a women's hand," the caption read.

Despite these views, women -- often led by suffragettes seeking social and political equality -- proved their ability in the workforce, Kopperman said. "I think it was at that time that men started to see women could run things."

Yet, after the war ended women returned to traditional roles, though in countries such as England, which lost nearly a generation of men, many women kept their jobs.

"It kind of depended on how badly the male population was decimated," Bastian said. "When there were men to be in those jobs then women were basically asked to leave."

However, women's war work helped advance the suffragettes’ long-fought battle for American women's right to vote, which they received August 18, 1920, with ratification of the 19th amendment, less than two years after the war ended.

The Phillips Museum exhibit will feature paper materials, some from Bastian’s own collection and others from F&M's archival collections, as well clothing worn by women during the World War I period. The clothing will be borrowed from Shippensburg and Drexel universities.