Rosie, Monuments, and the “Right” Color

This past spring and summer there was a lot of public discussion about monuments. What should communities choose to honor from the past and whom should we choose to represent the ideals of our country? Should we honor one of the greatest presidents in our history in a sculpture that can be interpreted as both freeing slaves and keeping them in submission? What about a great general who decided, when offered the position as head of the US Army, to join an insurrection intended to end the US in his region instead? In spite of the current controversy, monuments play an important role in telling the story of our past and signaling what it means to be citizen.

San Jose has several monuments around town, as is befitting for a city of one million people. In St. James park there are memorials to President McKinley and Robert Kennedy. Only one of them is a statue of a person. In the History Park we have a newish statue of Rosie the Rivetter. The real Rosie doesn’t originate in San Jose but a little north along the San Francisco bay in the city of Richmond. She is based on the World War II poster of Rosie. The purpose of the poster was to encourage women to take jobs formerly held by the men who were fighting in Europe and Asia against the Axis powers. Women were called upon to support the war effort by actively participating in what President Roosevelt called the “arsenal of democracy” to defeat the enemies of the United States and democracy around the globe. “Rosies” were in every industrial town throughout America. Without their work making steel, assembling aircraft and ships, making artillery and artillery shells, and everything else needed in the war effort victory would have been elusive.

Rosie in the History Park is positioned in front of a gazebo that could be in Anywhere, USA in the war era. She stands behind the tracks for an electric trolly that took workers to industry and shipyards across American in a time when rationed gas made taking public transportation a no-brainer. (The History Park as working single pole trolly cars too!) Our Rosie tells multiple stories.

First, Rosie is a tribute to the women who worked in the war effort. Mimicking the famous war poster, she has her hair behind a red bandana, is wearing blue collar working overalls and heavy boots, and is flexing that left bicep to remind us she is doing “real” work, not of the office variety. Rosie is telling another story. This second story is the one of exclusion. Rosie is important because she was not allowed to do this work before the war. Neither were people of color. Rosie’s work is men’s work. Frail women need not apply, and all women were frail. Our Rosie is white, reminding us that before the war men of color were not welcome either. Even though she is silent, she tells us both stories as she flexes in front of the hedge and the innocent gazebo.

My picture of Rosie is in black and white, the film of her day. It seemed right keep her in her own 1940’s context. If you walked by with your phone (oops, I mean camera) your memory would no doubt be color. That’s okay. The real Rosie didn’t walk around in a real black and white world. Her red bandana was as bright in 1942 as it is on the statue.

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