‘Rosie the Riveters’ At Last Receive Recognition

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Yes, they could do it.

That’s still June Robbins’ reaction to the task she and millions of other women were faced with nearly 75 years ago. It’s a task she never complained about — even when there was still work to be done, but she would no longer be doing it simply because she was the “wrong” gender.
That was simply the way it was back then. There was no women’s lib, Title IX or any other form of gender equity.
The men went off to fight in the war. The so-called “weaker sex” stayed home and did their jobs until they returned.
And few seemed to appreciate their efforts and the sacrifices they made — until now.
On Sept. 4 at Wesley Enhanced Living Main Line in Media they honored Robbins, who helped the war effort as a 17-year-old draftsman at the Navy Yard.
She and the rest were known as “Rosie the Riveters,” a national campaign meant to glorify the movement and attract volunteers. It came complete with the slogan, “We Can Do It,” along with the caricature of a strong-armed young woman wearing a red bandana flexing her muscles.
The funny thing is they really weren’t aware of all the hype.
“I’ve always been a ‘Rosie,’ and I didn’t really know it until I joined [the American Rosie the Riveter Association] a few years ago,” Robbins said. “Now they’re finding ways for people to recognize Rosies and honor them.
“I’ll be 90 next month. Most of them are gone. Their stories are lost.”
Well, not entirely.
“We knew what the war was,” said Robbins’ oldest daughter, Gloria Joffe, who was joined by her sister, Sandy Avidan. “We grew up in the 1960s, but we heard from both our mother and our dad [Melvin], who served overseas in the Navy as a bomber.
“She was especially proud of the fact she took the initiative to talk to her homeroom teacher and guidance counselor to try to get herself into that drafting class. That was something not done by women.”
Then again, Robbins wasn’t your average girl.
“I was at Olney High School,” she began, telling a story as fresh in her mind as if it happened yesterday. “My parents had divorced, and mother and I were living in the back of my aunt’s store in South Philly sleeping on a single bed.
“The boys were leaving to go into the service, and I knew I had to do something, so I went to the drafting teacher and asked permission to be accepted in the class. I didn’t bother with lunch or study hall and everyone covered for me.
“After I took some classes, the drafting teacher actually wrote a letter to the Navy Yard, and they sent me down there.”
She and her compatriots did the rest.
“This was around 1940,” she continued. “Rosies were sky watchers. Rosies ran the railroad in Philadelphia. They ran the trolleys. They worked for the Red Cross as volunteers. They went to the farms when the young men left, and they grew the food. Fourteen-year-olds left their homes with their parents’ permission and went to work building tires for trucks and motorcycles. Young women went off to building planes and tanks and sewing the clothing.
“We weren’t expecting appreciation then. We were taking the place of 20 million young men. My mother also worked at the Navy Yard during the war. She said I was hired to replace a man who left to serve his country.”
And they were fired as soon as the men returned.
That sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen now.
One Navy commander said not only does society owe these women a debt of gratitude, but it’s imperative to pass their stories on because they are becoming fewer by the day.
“I look at our youth and want you to know how critical it is for you all to remember this and carry it with you,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jason Ross told the crowd, which included the Coatesville Area High School color guard.
“The strength of this country is that we have all these powerful histories and messages that became woven into the fabric. This country needs to continue to hear those stories.”
Women like Robbins are eager to continue telling them. Her daughters said the thankless job she did then became a hallmark of her life.
“She was active in so many areas,” Avidan said. “She was always doing something and was a big believer in tikkun olam.
“That is really the motto of her life. She belonged to organizations that helped women, like B’nai B’rith Women and ORT. She was active in our synagogue,” Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall.
Ironically, Robbins had no idea that being Jewish made her a minority until later in life.
“I really didn’t know I was Jewish because everyone in our neighborhood was Jewish,” she admitted. “It wasn’t until somebody told me I killed Jesus.
“We were just living in a Jewish home, but it was a pretty rough time.”
But Robbins endured that, just as she had endured the catcalls and other indignities of being a young woman doing a man’s job.
And on this day, seeing more than 100 people turn out to honor her and plant the ceremonial pink dogwood tree that honors the legacies of Rosies throughout the world, she felt a sense of pride.
“I’m absolutely delighted that so many people are turning out to honor Rosies present and past,” she said, moments before she and the other women flexed their muscles in the traditional Rosie pose. “After all, there were 20 million of us who worked during the war.
“We didn’t do it for love and glory. We did it because we hoped it would shorten the war and bring our young men back. Unfortunately, right after the war, most of the women were told they were fired. ‘Go home. Use your mixers again. Be a mother. Be a housewife.’
“But we never did. My parents always taught me to be independent and think independently. Try it, and if it works out, wonderful. If it doesn’t, at least you tried.”
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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