Last week I was incredibly lucky to visit the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Visiting there wasn’t part of my original plan during my 10 day stay in CA, but it turned out to be the absolute highlight, partly down to surprise as the promotion and website for it does little justice to the scope and content of the collection on display in the Visitor Education Center. Perhaps it is a major difference in language used in public history in USA and the UK, but when I went to the Visitor Education Center I had expected to see a few leaflets and a volunteer giving me directions to the sites I needed to see. Instead I found a small museum with a theatre, education room and two exhibitions, one of which stretches across 2 rooms (as well as a shop, obviously). The Centre tells the story of the Rosies, the female workers at Richmond Shipyard in WWII, who had a major impact on the US war effort. It does this through exhibitions, discussions with staff members and volunteers, community outreach projects and days with Rosies: women who worked at the shipyard during WWII, who come to the education centre once a week to talk to visitors. Unfortunately I wasn’t there on a Rosie Meet and Greet day, but it sounds like an amazing experience and great way for visitors to engage with the histories of working women, WWII and the home front.
The impressive outreach project run annually through the Centre is Rosie’s Girls. The programme, which runs through the summer, aims to engage and inspire young girls with both history and their future working lives. It introduces the girls, who are often from low income families in Richmond, to hands-on engineering skills, influenced by the Rosies of WWII. As well as taking part in activities outside the centre and learning skills in workshops, the girls get to meet and talk with the Rosies, who tell them about their working lives in the 1940s, and what it was like to be at the home front during the war. As a form of public history, Rosie’s Girls is remarkable – it uses the past to inspire the future, and aims to make a real difference to these young girls lives. This June marks the first National Women in Engineering Day in the UK, where efforts are also being made to encourage young girls to take up Science, Technology, Maths and Engineering (STEM) subjects, and projects such as Rosie’s Girls are a great way of doing so.
In the exhibition space itself, the story the Centre tells is equally as progressive and based on social change as Rosie’s Girls. Small exhibition panels seen on leaving the theatre highlight the role of not only women, but Latino, black and disabled individuals in the work of Richmond Shipyard. The stories told across the exhibitions, although they do focus on women’s history, show an intersectional history of WWII, and the way that society both changed and stayed the same as those who were usually on the margins of society came to contribute to the war effort.
I was surprised not to find anything about same-sex love between women during WWII in the exhibitions. However, the Centre is running an outreach project, Seeking LGBT Stories of WWII, which aims to rectify the lack of LGBT histories in their collection. The Centre continues to run a similar project on home front histories more generally, in which people donate their memories to the centre to be transcribed and included in their collection, ensuring that the stories told are always personal, often local and with a unique spin. The LGBT project aims to produce similar results, and add another layer to the intersectional representation visible in the exhibitions. The National Park Service (NPS), which this park is part of, is also currently working on a nationwide LGBT heritage initiative, which aims to identify and preserve historic sites relating to the LGBT past. Academics, workers in the heritage industry and LGBT community members are all involved in this large scale project, which sounds like a really exciting project, and one which it would be wonderful should any UK heritage institutions wish to emulate…
The Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front Historic Site spreads far beyond the visitor centre, to include assembly plants, shipyards, a ship and a memorial. The memorial, which is the first in the USA to the women of the home front, began as a public art project, and resulted in the founding of the Historical Park. Like later projects at the centre, the memorial uses memories of Rosies, their families, and those who worked and contributed to the war effort during the 1940s, to create a historical narrative.
On either side of the memorial, and leading up to the waterfront, are paving slabs with writing on. Walking in one direction, visitors can read information about key dates of WWII and the work of Richmond Shipyard. In the other, they read the memories of Rosies, who contributed their histories specifically for the memorial. Many of them highlight the difficulty the women had in convincing their male colleagues they could do the work as well as the men could: “It was hard to convince your lead man that you could do the work. When he assigned jobs, I used to follow him around and say, “I could do that, I could do that.” He got sick of me and said, “Okay do it!” And of course, I could. I could do it.”
The memorial, as well as the park as a whole, tells a remarkable history of not only working women, but progressive change that would eventually influence civil rights movements across the US. It’s a testament to the Rosies of WWII that in the Centre shop, you can buy memorabilia of a modern day Rosie: a woman of colour, in traditional Rosie pose, exclaiming, “We Did It!”