There is More to Women's Labour Than Rosie the Riveter

'1942_JHowardMiller_we_can_do_it' photo (c) 2009, Michal Hadassah - license:

In celebration of Labour Day, The Huffington Post decided to publish historical images of women working.  Clearly these photos were taken during WWII, when women were encouraged to leave the domestic life behind to work in factors because the war effort desperately needed labour.  Time and time again these images has appeared and every time I see them what instantly occurs to me is the whiteness of this experience.

There is never any discussion about the fact that for WOC, working outside of the home was standard due to racism and being historically constructed as unwomen.  During this time period because factors were so desperate for labour, Black women did manage to get good factory paying jobs, however they were often paid less than White women and were forced into the most difficult forms of manual labour and yet Rosie the Riveter is constantly thrust into our faces as though she is someone we WOC should identify with.  I cannot now or ever will view the figure of Rosie the Riveter as some kind of talisman to female agency.

Images of WOC working in this time period most certainly exist, and yet the selection that The Huffington Post chose to publish didn’t include a single one.  This is absolutely erasure and helps to project the myth that White women’s labour is special because they left their pedestal. I am in no way suggesting that benign sexism is a good thing but what I am suggesting is that White women have always had an advantage over WOC and even in situations where women were marginalized, White women have always been seen.

This is also commonly seen in discussions about the the 19th Amendment:

The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution (ratified August 18, 1920), says, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” 

In this case, the women that were given the right to vote were White and yet year after year, women’s activists trot out the fireworks and pop the champagne as though this day applied to all women equally. Year after year, WOC are forced to remind White women that this celebration is about White womanhood and certainly ignores the history of institutionalized racism that WOC still have negotiate. This continues to happen because ‘woman,’ continues to be conflated with Whiteness.

What I wonder is why White allies are continually so silent about this issue?  Even when there is a mention of the erasure of WOC it normally amounts to a sentence which is never enough to detract from the celebration of White womanhood.  If the project for women’s equality is really about freeing women from patriarchal control, should it not begin with women that have historically been the most marginalized? Shouldn’t WOC, Lesbians, Trans women, Disabled women, Older Women, Poor women etc., be centered in any conversation regarding the emancipation of womanhood from the stranglehold of sexism on our lives?

This does not happen, because straight, cisgender, White women of class privilege are determined to be the equal of White men and not the equal of women that face multiple sites of oppression.  Sisterhood exists only as far as it can help to elevate these women. 

Images like Rosie have become so ubiquitous, that few stop to think about what it really means that the face of women’s emancipation from the gilded cage is represented by Whiteness.  I know that Rosie was chosen by a male dominated government, but the fact that women’s activists continue to use the image is a reflection of the ongoing to desire to erase the experiences and various oppressions that many marginalized women face.  Rosie is no more representative of me, or women like me, than a square peg surrounded by circular holes;  she does not fit, and cannot hope to ever fit.

Celebrations of women’s labour or women’s history should never occur without a discussion of the divisions imposed by things like race, class, sexuality and age and yet erasure is absolutely routine because it privileges certain dominant bodies. Demanding that we identify or celebrate these images is yet another form of oppression.  That this continues to happen is just another example of the long road marginalized women must still travel to equality.

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