“Rosies” remembered for helping usher greater equality

By Jake Joy DLA Disposition Services

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Nearly everyone has seen the iconic WWII-era illustration of an empowered young “Rosie the Riveter” flexing a bicep and stepping forward to fill a manufacturing role presumably vacated by a man sent to fight Axis powers across Europe and the Pacific.   

Rosie’s accompanying corporate motivational poster tagline, “We Can Do It!” has since served as a rallying cry for feminist advocates in the struggle for equal rights, opportunity and pay ever since the imagery resurfaced in the early 1980s.

While people know the fictional Rosie, how about the real Naomi Parker Frayley, Mary K. Cohen, Rose Lesslie, Grace Wallace, Elinor Otto or Frances E. Kawiak Baran?

What was perhaps obscured by the bold iconography of the times are the very real faces, real names and real stories of the 18 million working women of the era who helped the U.S. economy and war effort continue to hum as a global fight raged on, and as a result, helped change public sentiment on the proper place of women in American society.

In August, six women workers at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek paid homage to the names and stories of a handful of those Rosie the Riveter, Wendy the Welder and Julie the Janitor-types who helped their country build enough tanks and planes for it and its allies to eventually overwhelm their adversaries.   

“They were very motivated – a great group to work with,” said Women’s Equality Day Special Emphasis Program Manager Stacy Marsala. She said the six women each played a real person, conducting independent research, developing a narrative for each and educating participants while dressed as their historical figure. “They went above and beyond and even brought in a bunch of their own displays for the tables.”   

DLA Equal Employment Opportunity Specialist Renelle Hansen played Naomi Parker Frayley, the Rosie whose photo inspired the “We Can Do It!” poster created by a Westinghouse Company illustrator in 1942. Hanson described Frayley’s contributions as a 20-year-old industrial worker in a factory at a naval base in California. Hanson said that Frayley later shared some simple thoughts on equality, always telling her son that “nobody is better than you and you are better than nobody.”

DLA Disposition Services Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Robin Rogers played Rose Lesslie, who worked on military blimps at California’s Moffett Field. Rogers said she found the transcript of an interview the University of California at Berkeley had conducted with Lesslie, whom Rogers had chosen to portray at random. Rogers said her description of a male warehouse boss harassing the married Lesslie, taking her upstairs in the factory to a room with a bed and her running away was poignant and made her appreciate the importance of her current role in the agency.

“I learned a lot, actually, about everything [Rosies] went through,” Rogers said. “They just stepped in, learned what to do and went about it.”

DLA Information Operations Program Analyst Angel Morgan played the Englishwoman Grace Wallace, a member of the Women’s Land Army, staffed by “land girls” who stepped up to fill their country’s farming needs during the war – an idea later picked up on in the U.S. by Eleanor Roosevelt that produced the “farmettes” of the Woman’s Land Army of America.

“It was the beginning of another type of Rosie,” Morgan said. “It was quite a bit of research.”

Additional Rosies were played by DLA’s Elli Blonde, Zoe Orchel and Tina Lilly.

“These are just six women represented, but there were millions of others,” Marsala said. “We’re just happy to be able to tell a few of their stories.”