This iconic poster has adorned the wall of my classroom for the last fifteen or so years, as long as I have been teaching in MS 176. Geraldine Doyle, the woman who was the source of inspiration for this poster, created by J. Howard Miller, died on Sunday. She worked at a factory for two weeks, in 1942, to aid the war effort, but quit because she wanted to protect her hands from injury. She was a cellist. Apparently, Geraldine Doyle didn’t even know about the poster until 1982, when she happened upon it.
For me, and for many feminists, the poster has been a source of inspiration and determination, of the will to continue to the fight for fairness, equity and justice for women. Sadly, I can’t think of any other image that has managed to sustain women and girls as much as this image, over 50 years old.
With Geraldine’s death, perhaps it is time to consider what women are still fighting for and why this image has held such imaginative power for so long.
When Geraldine was working in the factory, I am not sure whether she was paid what the male workers were paid. Certainly, equal pay for equal work is a more recent catch phrase, and one that is unfortunately still relevant. Even in such professions as teaching, where the salary schedule is published and fixed, women make less than men. When my union did research on comparable pay at other school districts, we found that in N-8 grade schools, where the work force is predominantly women, the pay is significantly lower than in 9-12 grade schools in the same districts, where the work force has a larger percentage of male teachers. Because more women than men teach in lower and middle school classrooms, the pay at those schools is far less than the pay at high schools.
Unequal pay for similar work is still the standard, and Census data reveals that women still earn only 76% of their male counterparts wages. The gap, as measured by Census data seems to remain relatively steady, with some changes that can be attributed to education and particular occupations. For a more complete analysis, see The Gender Wage Gap: Debunking Rationalizations, by Hilary Lips.
Today, the Rosies of America work in places like Wal-Mart, earning slave-like wages and coming home after a mind numbing day with no benefits, no health care. Because higher paying factory jobs have been outsourced and moved to countries where wages are even lower, and because unions have been eviscerated, the idea of making a living by using one’s hands seems like a fairy-tale, a nostalgic wish. Writers like Barbara Ehrenreich have documented the hardships of making a living in America if you are in the “unskilled” labor market. Her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, illustrated the obstacles standing in the way of earning a living for many women.
Thanks to my sister for cluing me in on the “real” Rosie’s death — and the few obits that have been written about her.