Mae Krier has watched members of her World War II generation die over the years, many taking their rich historical stories with them. And she is determined to preserve that history while she is still here to do it.
For more than 30 years, the 94-year-old resident of the Philadelphia area has been promoting awareness of the roughly five million civilian women who served in the defense industry and elsewhere in the commercial sector during the 1940s war years. These working wartime women filled industrial jobs, like fastening rivets on aircraft and welding, vacated by men who left to fight. They built the armor, ammunition and other war supplies that powered the U.S. military to victory in Europe and Asia.
Krier has spent several decades urging leaders to give these women the official recognition they deserve, and to mark an indelible place in the American memory—and now, due in part to her tireless promotion, the nation has bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal to Krier and her cohort, a group better known by its ubiquitous embodiment: Rosie the Riveter.
When women entered the factory floors, there was no going back, says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It was a transformative moment in American culture, which had reserved many careers for men.
Rosie is practically synonymous today with the American homefront during WWII. A catchy, popular song from 1942 about a woman working in an aircraft factory gave Rosie her name; the following year, the Saturday Evening Post’s Norman Rockwell illustrated a cover depicting a denim-clad worker with a bandanna on her head. But ever since, and particularly in the past 30 years as the popularity of Rosie has skyrocketed, the true history has been clouded by myth-making.
Take, for instance, the iconic poster of a woman wearing a red-and-white polka dot bandanna, flexing her biceps. With bold determination, she confronts the viewer from beneath the words “We Can Do It!” Created by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller, the poster hung at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company factories for just two weeks as a motivational tool for women workers. As well-known as the poster is today, few people would have seen it at the time. The propaganda poster didn’t recruit workers as one might think; it promoted the management’s message to existing workers to work hard and not slack off. The Rockwell magazine cover would have had greater exposure to people during the 1940s and beyond.