During World War II, Rosie the Riveter was an iconic figure. She represented the thousands of American women who joined the industrial workforce to make the weapons needed to fight the Germans and the Japanese.
The concept of having women take on non-traditional jobs when the nation is at war is not a new one. Even during the American Revolution women stepped in to fill male occupational roles, thereby freeing more men for military service. From 1778 to 1783 the American government’s most important ammunition factory was located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here, dozens of workers sat at 12-foot-long tables each day, making thousands of musket cartridges out of paper and filling them with gunpowder. Of the 184 employees known to be involved in this work, 106, or well over half, were women. Women probably excelled at this job, because forming and sealing the paper cartridges required a great deal of manual dexterity. Each woman at the Philadelphia Arsenal produced an average of 131 cartridges a day, or about one cartridge every five minutes. As with Rosie the Riveter and most of her sisters, when the Revolutionary War ended the female ammunition workers of Philadelphia left the factory floor and moved back into more traditional women’s occupations.