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Real-life 'Rosie the Riveters' reunite in D.C. to win the nation's top civilian honor

"Rosies" pose for a photo at the U.S. Capitol before their Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony on Wednesday.
Anna Moneymaker
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Getty Images
"Rosies" pose for a photo at the U.S. Capitol before their Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony on Wednesday.

Updated April 10, 2024 at 16:39 PM ET

A downtown Washington, D.C., hotel was buzzing with excited energy on Wednesday morning, as dozens of women wearing red and white polka-dotted shirts and scarves, many joined by caregivers, assembled in the lobby to greet each other and confirm the day's plans.

A table downstairs displayed signs of Rosie the Riveter, the headscarf-clad, muscle-flexing icon who has come to represent the millions of women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, filling positions previously held only by men and helping power the U.S. to victory.

A triumphant image of the Rosie the Riveter is displayed at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Rachel Treisman / NPR
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NPR
A triumphant image of the Rosie the Riveter is displayed at the Hamilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.

But the speech bubble above her head didn't read "We Can Do It!" as it does in most reproductions of the recruitment poster. Instead, it said, "We Did It!"

"Today's the big day," explains 98-year-old Jeanne Gibson, who, like many of the women in the room, has a copy of her wartime ID badge — photo, name and location included — pinned to her shirt.

"I am a Rosie, and the Rosies — at long, long last, after many, many tries — are going to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor."

Eight decades after their wartime efforts, real-life Rosie the Riveters are receiving the nation's highest civilian honor from Congress — the Congressional Gold Medal.

Twenty seven "Rosies" traveled from across the country to attend Wednesday's award ceremony, says K. Lynn Berry, the superintendent of the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Its nonprofit partner, the Rosie the Riveter Trust, raised funds to support their trips.

"It says something that nearly 30 women in their 90s and even up to 106 are traveling to D.C. to receive this honor," Berry told NPR on Tuesday.

The journey itself was a celebration for many. Several of the women, flying together from San Francisco on Monday, were greeted with cheers and a water cannon salute upon their arrival in D.C.

One of them, Marian Sousa, 98, said female mechanics and machinists, wearing Rosie headwear, sent them off with a ceremony in San Francisco. On the plane, flight attendants wore red headscarves and played the Rosie the Riveter song over the speakers.

"And when we got to Washington, D.C., the pilot said, 'Don't worry about the fire engines, it's not a fire,' " she recalled with a chuckle. "He says, 'You're going to get what they do for the retiring pilots;' they shoot water on the plane. ... It was all unexpected and just spectacular and I'm very grateful."

Sousa, who drew blueprints in the engineering department of a Richmond shipyard and now volunteers with the historical park, said Rosies never expected to be honored for their work.

Velma Long, 106, worked as a typist for the U.S. Navy during WWII. She says she's honored to be accepting this award eight decades later.
Rachel Treisman / NPR
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NPR
Velma Long, 106, worked as a typist for the U.S. Navy during WWII. She says she's honored to be accepting this award eight decades later.

"It was a job that needed to be done — by women," she added. "It's very satisfying, I'll tell you that. Words escape me, although I'm a talker."

In the hotel lobby on Wednesday morning, 106-year-old Velma Long — who worked as a clerk-typist with the Navy in Texas during the war — reflected on the significance of making it to this age (she credits her love of catfish dinners and her family, which includes nine great-grandchildren) and this moment.

"I'm glad to be recognized, and I feel very important," she said.

It's long-awaited recognition for living history

For Rosies and their supporters, Wednesday's award is a long-overdue moment of recognition — and the latest in a series of efforts to preserve their stories for future generations.

That work took off at the turn of the millennium with the establishment in 2000 of the historical park in Richmond, a WWII boom town for more than 55 industries that produced more than 740 ships alone.

Berry said the idea for a park honoring the history of the homefront came from a number of stakeholders, including the city, the National Park Service and Rosies themselves, many of whom "advocated and wrote letters and tried to get some recognition for their part of that story."

Millions of women worked in U.S. factories and shipyards during WWII to support the war. They're known now as "Rosies," because of the symbolism of Rosie the Riveter.
Hugo Nadaner / National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NHP
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National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NHP
Millions of women worked in U.S. factories and shipyards during WWII to support the war. They're known now as "Rosies," because of the symbolism of Rosie the Riveter.

"Their contributions to the war were incredibly important, and their image has become iconic," she added. "And those two things melded together as a focal point for the preservation of their stories, melded with the historic resources that are still present in the city of Richmond."

Berry credited the late Phyllis Gould, who worked as a welder in Richmond during the war, with helping develop the park and gain recognition for the Rosies in other ways, including by writing letters to U.S. presidents for years. Then-Vice President Joe Biden invited a group of Rosies to the White House in 2014, after Gould wrote him asking for a hug.

Before Gould's death at age 99 in 2021, she and another Rosie, Mae Krier, spent years separately lobbying Congress for a federal Rosie the Riveter day, according to the trust. While it hasn't been given federal holiday status, Congress has passed resolutions in recent years designating March 21 as national Rosie the Riveter Day.

The two eventually joined forces to advocate for a Congressional medal honoring the Rosies. Lawmakers did introduce a bill to recognize Rosies for "their contributions to the United States and the inspiration they have provided to ensuing generations." It passed the House in 2019 and the Senate in 2020, after which then-President Donald Trump signed it into law.

Krier, now 98, told member station WHYY ahead of the ceremony, (which she is attending) that WWII changed the lives of many Rosies, even if they weren't on the front lines.

"We weren't in the trenches, but we built everything that our fighting men needed," said Krier, who was 17 when she helped build bombers for Boeing in Seattle. "And I thought that they should at least give us credit for what we did."

Sisters Ruth, Jean, Lois and Leona Johnson are pictured at Women's Army Corps training school in this undated photo.
/ National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NHP
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National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NHP
Sisters Ruth, Jean, Lois and Leona Johnson are pictured at Women's Army Corps training school in this undated photo.

What Rosies learned from their experience — and what others can take from it

Many Rosies consider their WWII work not only a contribution to the war effort, but an experience of growing their confidence and independence, Berry said.

"They speak with some regularity about knowing that they could ... put their mind to something and achieve it, even if it was unfamiliar to them, even if it wasn't a role traditionally held by women," she added. "They did it, so they knew they could do it again."

That was the case for Gibson, who was 17 when the war broke out. She later traveled from Minnesota to Seattle with her school friend Esther to become a welder at Todd Pacific Shipyards in Seattle (and later made manifests and hatch lists for the Army Transportation Corps' Embarkation Center in Juneau, Alaska).

She remembers working on destroyers, wearing pajamas under her jeans to stay warm during her late-night swing shifts. They wore protective face shields and braids to keep their hair away from sparks, and were often climbing into tight spaces and working long hours.

She described the work as "exhilarating," but said the women doing it didn't consider it "anything special" at the time.

Jeanne Gibson, 98, is one of nearly 30 "Rosies" who traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept the medal. During the war, she worked as a welder in Seattle and for the Army Transportation Corps in Juneau.
Rachel Treisman / NPR
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NPR
Jeanne Gibson, 98, is one of nearly 30 "Rosies" who traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept the medal. During the war, she worked as a welder in Seattle and for the Army Transportation Corps in Juneau.

"I mean, everybody was doing something, and this was it," she added.

Many women were forced out of their jobs — and the workforce altogether — when men returned from the war. Gibson and Esther moved to California, where she started working for an insurance company — but quit after she found out that her file clerk was getting paid $5 more a month than she was, "because he was a man."

Gibson took a bookkeeping job next, where she worked hard and was promoted quickly. But when she asked her boss about next steps, he effectively told her "this is it for you," expecting her to get married and have kids. So Gibson quit and went into education, getting her bachelors, masters and doctorate in teaching.

"I had a thousand kids, because I taught school for 30 years," she laughed.

She also earned a private pilot's license — describing it as a bucket-list item — and joined the Ninety-Nines, or International Organization of Women Pilots.

Even though she lived near — and even visited — the Richmond site, Gibson says she didn't consider herself a Rosie until recently, when a new friend's daughter heard her story and called her one. She got involved in the park and now volunteers to share her story at weekly "Rosie Fridays," where she says she is mainly focused on delivering a message to younger women about the importance of equal pay.

"And then the other thing is that during the wartime, America was different ... everybody was pulling in the same direction, there wasn't this dissension like there is today," she adds. "And that was very important for making us realize that our democracy had to be defended. And so I guess maybe I'm telling them that they also can do something."

Berry agrees that Wednesday's long-awaited honor isn't just about reflecting on the pivotal role Rosies played in supporting the war effort and changing the landscape of the industrial workforce.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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