Could Michigan win back its world record as the site of the most Rosie the Riveter impersonators under one roof? After months of planning, the answer was yes.
On Saturday, Oct. 14, thousands of women, and a few men, heeded the call, following the four simple commandments for the event, known as the Rosie Rally for the Guinness World Records. “Costume requirements consist of dark blue work clothes, red socks, dark shoes with closed toes, and the quintessential red and white polka dot bandanna.”
They filled the Convocation Stadium at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti in the suburbs of Detroit, converting it into a sea of red, white, and blue uniformity. Young men in vintage sailor outfits completed the retro scene, holding up signs that helped tally the attendees.
3,755 was the final count of women and men who streamed through a verification turnstile, pending acceptance from Guinness.
These thousands were honoring the women who heeded the original call to duty more than 75 years ago when the nearby Ford Plant at Willow Run became known as “The Arsenal of Democracy.” The auto factory was converted by Henry Ford at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to produce the B-24 Liberator bomber.
With men off for battle, who would fill the factories? Women.
The story of Rosie the Riveter comes from several women who worked in factories, many named Rose, a common name at the time. This included Rose Will Monroe, a native Kentuckian who moved to Michigan and worked at Willow Run.
The term “Rosie the Riveter” was first used in 1942 in a song of the same name. Years later, J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It” poster, featuring a female factory worker flexing an arm muscle, also became synonymous with “Rosie.”
While clearly fun, the event at the weekend had a deeper meaning.
“Women were here for more than just a world record,” said Tracy Ausen, the assistant director for the United Auto Workers (UAW) Ford National Programs Center, a proud smile on her face and a red and white polka dot bandana tying her hair back, as she parked the UAW program truck.
Indeed, the event was really a confluence of issues—from the ongoing struggle of women in the workplace, to the impact of globalization and de-industrialization and the challenge that can be to unions which had a strong presence here, to preserving American historical sites, as well as the role sciences and engineering should have in schools.
The main force behind the event was Alison Beatty, a native Michigander and public policy Ph.D. candidate at the nearby University of Michigan.
Beatty said for “women and all people of today, Rosie represents a spirit of empowerment, and an amazing historical feat that is the origin of this, that is also incredibly current and transparent and relevant for problems that we face now in a different age. It is not about how do we produce a hundred thousand planes for a war, but how do we overcome obstacles that we are still facing.”
Beatty described obstacles the Rosie story continues to address today as women’s rights, boys and girls in STEM (science, technology, education and mathematics), employment problems, de-industrialization, and modern manufacturing in an era of globalization.
Beatty added, “How do we remain stable and competitive in the face of obstacles? This is an incredible historical feat that is admirable in and of itself to be remembered and told to young people today, but also how it transcends time and it is relevant.
“It can be applied to all the problems that we face now, or can do better. For example, it could be along the lines of do we need to investigate reshoring (moving a country’s base of business back to the U.S. from a foreign country that it had previously relocated to). Is that a way for the United States to be competitive, or look at concentrating on the engineering side of production, or do we need a combination of both?
“It is all a reminder through history that these women were flexible, and they rose up to the circumstance and found creative ways to overcome the obstacles and whatever was demanded of them. That is how I see that Rosie is relevant.”
Michigan congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who served as a co-chair of the event said, “Today a diverse group of women, from six weeks to 110 years old, came together from Michigan and all over the world to help preserve our state’s history and bring the Rosie record home.”
Dingell was referring to the previous record of 2,229 Rosies set in Richmond, California, last year, topping the previous Ypsilanti record of 2,090 from 2015. Dingell added, “this was an incredible afternoon with all generations—including 58 ‘original’ Rosies, from Willow Run and other factories—sharing stories, passing on our history and celebrating the iconic women who stepped up during World War II and forever transformed the role of women in the workplace.
“We were united as Americans and celebrating how everyone came together in this country at that historical time. These trailblazing women continue to inspire and empower us all.”
The sense of American patriotism and togetherness was in full effect. In unison, the thousands gathered placed their hands over their hearts, turning around to salute the giant flag hanging on the back of the stadium. Some of the original Rosies even stood up from wheelchairs.
Among them was 98-year-old Phyllis Lenhard. “All the men were gone to war and they needed us,” she said. An independent person from an early age, Ms. Lenhard had also later performed as a chorus girl in Detroit for the show Stars of Tomorrow, and worked for the Detroit Times newspaper.
Through her work at the plant, she had even met Henry Ford himself, recounting a time when she was knocking on various doors and came across an office he was in. “I turned the corner and saw him, and he invited me in. We chatted for over two and a half hours.” She had tea and then dinner with the family, meeting Ford’s grandson whom she also ended up dating. “I was only 18 at the time,” she said, her eyes sparkling at the memory.
The event was also part of a larger fight beyond the world record, an attempt to connect to history and the actual workplace of the Rosies. Banners with the slogan “Save the Bomber Plant” were hung throughout the stadium, telling of the struggle, with Rosie as the central symbol.
Another goal of the gathering, and part of why bringing the record back to Michigan, was to bring attention to preserving what remains of the actual site of where the B-24 Liberator was produced and moving the Yankee Air Museum currently housed at Willow Run Airport, into the Willow Run factory, though most of it has long since been demolished.
According to museum director Kevin Walsh, the Willow Run bomber plant was over a mile long with over 3 million square feet of manufacturing space. Only the last portion of the production area—an approximately 144,000 square foot twist in the factory where it avoided stretching into Wayne County from its Washtenaw County setting, a tax avoidance tactic by Ford—has been preserved.
“This is where we will build the museum,” Walsh said, adding, “we have bought the site already and our goal is to move in by 2020.”
The need for preservation is clear as a way to honor the women now known as Rosies who stepped up for their country at a time when the lines between good and evil were clearly drawn, according to Jim Dries, chairman of the Board of the Michigan Aerospace Foundation, the group behind the Save The Bomber Plant Campaign. Alison Beatty became the first official Rosie tribute impersonator for the Campaign in 2013.
“This factory produced a bomber an hour,” Dries said. “We were able to build them faster than they were able to shoot them down. Without these women and this plant, we would never have been able to win the war.”