Gender, race, and class in The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter

Gender, race, and class in The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter

The feminist philosophical theories of bell hooks on consciousness-raising are significant in analyzing the themes of gender within the 1980 film, The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter. Media such as this film portrays gender and feminism in many different perspectives. While the media in the 1940s depicted women working in the home or patriotically working ‘men’s jobs’ during wartime, today’s media shows different ideas on what gender and feminism look like. hooks states that “the voices of ‘power feminism’ tend to be highlighted in mass media far more than the voices of individual feminist women who have gained class power without betraying our solidarity towards those groups without class privilege” (hooks, 42). This idea of “power feminism” shows the lens of feminist women who gained social power and how it was shown through different types of media during World War II. 

hooks writes about how women are socialized through a sexist lens, writing that “when women first organized in groups to talk together about the issue of sexism and male domination, they were clear that females were as socialized to believe sexist thinking and values as males, the difference being simply that males benefited from sexism more than females and were as consequence less likely to want to surrender patriarchal privilege” (hooks, 7). This quote is significant in relation to the film because women were socialized into following the orders of men, whether it was believing that they had free will to go to work for the men during the war, or when they went back to their household roles. Women were working during World War II as their patriotic duty, with the narrator in the video stating, “We have the wives of college professors, club women, home girls who are doing it as their patriotic duty” (LTRR, 27:31). With this being said, while women were obligated to do these tasks that men were unavailable to do (for the time being), women took the initiative and felt as though they chose to assist as their patriotic duty while their husbands, brothers, fathers, and even sons were fighting in the war. Also, in one of the short video clips shown throughout the film, the narrator explained that after the war, women were to go “back to being housewives and mothers again, as you promised to do when you came to work for us” (LTRR, 43:53). Women were excited to be in the workplace, in comparison to their roles in the home, during the war, so making this promise to go back to their roles as housewives and mothers was debilitating to these women who were trying to work for their country. 

Analyzing the concept of patriarchy and the institutionalized system of sexism, hooks writes that “revolutionary feminist consciousness-raising emphasized the importance of learning about patriarchy as a system of domination, how it became institutionalized and how it is perpetuated and maintained” (hooks, 7).  With this quote, the connection between male dominance and Gladys Belcher’s life in the film is inherent. Toward the beginning of the film, Gladys explains that she was hired for lawn work, but when she discloses that she is a woman, the man who hired her says, “If I’d known you were a woman, I wouldn’t have hired you” (LTRR, 5:43). This idea of men being better at certain jobs than women truly shows the patriarchal viewpoints of men in the early to mid-1900s, to even today. Later on in the film, Gladys talks about joining a union, stating “One of the women, Blanche, and I went down to United Electrical Workers Union. We started to wear union buttons, and Mr. Kofsky’s face changed, he didn’t like us anymore. We were no longer his girls” (LTRR, 23:12). When Mr. Kofsky found out that these women had a free will and opinions of their own, he immediately changed his views on their work ethic and personalities. Kofsky’s patriarchal ideals of male dominance were thrown for a loop, as “his girls” fought back against the institution. 

As people like Gladys started showing their free will, more women began to become conscious of the world around them, with hooks writing that “awareness in women of the ways we were victimized, exploited, and, in worse case scenarios, oppressed” (hooks, 7). Lola Weixel is a great example of a woman conscious of her exploitation. In the film, Lola says “We were earning far less than the men, but we’re doing the same work” (LTRR, 22:45). Women were working in place of men during World War II, so while men were at war, women were working the same exact jobs as the men for less money than the men would earn. With women doing the same work as men and getting paid less than them, they still needed to keep up with all of the housework at home because “the house somehow refused to run itself when eight hours a day were spent at the plant” (LTRR, 35:35). This ‘second shift’ did not go unnoticed by women such as Lola, with her noting that “I needed to do, help with the housework when I got home” (LTRR, 30:57). With Gladys’ work experience and Lola’s views on exploitation, now comes Lyn Childs and her acts of protest.  Women have “unleashed pent-up hostility and rage about being victimized” and perform acts of protest against the men who have authority over them (hooks, 7). Lyn Childs performs one of these acts when she threatens a male co-worker with the torch that she was using at work, saying “If you lift one more foot, I’ll cut your guts out” (LTRR, 38:14). This act of protest is the most feminist action described in this film, as Lyn fights for her dignity and respect in a male-dominated field. Overall, connecting hooks’ views on feminism and consciousness-raising to the experiences of the women in the 1980 film The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter helps to further analyze feminism in media in the past and similarly, today.

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