In the early days of COVID-19, you might have missed the obituary for 95-year-old Rosalind Walter, who passed away on March 4. Her story is the kind where the legend and the real person behind that legend finally get connected.
John Chapman isn’t necessarily a legendary name, but everyone who knows a little American folklore knows the story of Johnny Appleseed. No one has ever heard of Ann Turner Cook and Dorothy Hope Smith, but The Gerber Baby, for which Ms. Cook was the model and Ms. Smith was the artist, is an iconic American advertising institution.
And Rosalind Walter had a full and interesting 95 years of life, but her work at a Connecticut aircraft factory in 1942 was first written about in a local newspaper, and then set to music in the World War II song “Rosie the Riveter.”
Just 19 years old and working on the night shift in the Sikorsky plant in Bridgeport, her story was told in the local newspaper, and songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb turned that into the tale of Rosie. One verse goes:
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage Sitting up there on the fuselage That little frail can do, more than a male can do— Rosie, brrrrr, the Riveter.
The song became a rallying cry during the war, when everyone pitched in and everyone contributed to the effort. If the contribution couldn’t be made on the sands of Iwo Jima or the beaches of France, an airplane plant in Connecticut would be just fine.
As we sit amid another crisis today, it’s interesting that we’ve learned some of the lessons of shared sacrifice—of who and what is valuable and who really contributes in times of strife. And yet the value of women as an integral part of manufacturing still is told as an anomaly. We still find the need to discuss women in key roles as manufacturers as separate and occasionally equal.
That “little frail” who could do “more than a male can do” isn’t just a slogan or a song. It shouldn’t fall to separate associations and the occasional magazine story to remind manufacturers that 58% of your civilian labor force over the age of 16 is available to fill the estimated 2 million open manufacturing jobs. That should be baked into our DNA, into our recruiting efforts and our industry outreach.
As manufacturing evolves into an intellectual as well as a physical enterprise, our focus has to be on evaluating what we do with the data and how it can affect change in our plants. We have seen in this crisis the value of speed and flexibility in manufacturing. These are gender-neutral concepts—in truth, they require people of all stripes and backgrounds and abilities. The fewer walls we build between our workforce, the stronger it becomes.
Rosalind Walter was not unique in 1942; many, many women picked up an air gun and put rivets into airplane bodies. Others contributed in plants and facilities of all stripes around the country. Her example, told in story and in song, provided a brief respite from the war, but also served as an opportunity to reshape the national discussion.
No category of the American workforce is larger, yet no category is more deserving of a thorough review of its place in 21st Century manufacturing than women. We all should be singing the same tune.