I have a confession to make: last summer, while in the San Francisco Bay Area, I visited the Rosie the Riveter National Monument in Richmond.
For years, I saw the sign for it on the 580 Freeway, and I was always intrigued. I had a couple hours to kill one morning while in the area last summer, and it turned out to be a fascinating outing.
Why is this a confession? Why do I feel sheepish, even a bit ashamed, about admitting to making this visit? Because I’m a Quaker, and I’m not supposed to support or have anything to do with war or war-making. I have a few friends, including one non-Quaker peace activist, who, I imagine, would probably chide me for wanting to go to a place that glorifies war and those involved in making war.
But this national monument, curiously tucked away right next to the bay at the end of a guarded industrial and port area, turned out to be much more than a war memorial. Besides, it includes a very pleasant, if chilly and windy, walk along the water’s edge that appears to go on for some length – something to keep in mind for future visits.
Yes, the small museum appears to focus on war-making, but it also tells the story of Richmond, showing how World War II turned out to be a time of tremendous growth and transformation, a boon, for it and nearby towns. Being a community with a major port during a major war definitely had its perks. More than that – and here’s where things get fascinating – the museum shows how the war was also a time of tremendous transformation, a boon, for women, lading directly, one can easily argue, to the women’s movement.
As the museum shows, during the war, women were set to work stateside, doing non-combat jobs, such as preparing weapons and ships (riveting, etc.) and providing air transport (flying planes)for troops and supplies. This was part of a nationwide war effort, not seen since, in which everyone sacrificed and gave (rationing, victory gardens, etc.), and women were asked to and given the opportunity to do things like never before.
This was a huge change that was no doubt unintentionally radical and radicalizing. Before the war, women – at least those who were married – stayed home and cooked and cleaned and took care of the children. It is said, half-jokingly, that of the women who did go to college, most “got their M.R.S,” dropping out to get married. After the war, many of the women were not happy about going back to their pre-war housewife lives or found it no longer satisfying. Thus, it could be said that this sparked the beginning of the women’s liberation movement.
The museum also features a small display dealing with gay men and lesbians during the war – even more fascinating. These folks, who were pretty much closeted at the time, also found themselves deployed in new jobs in the war efforts. This gave them new and more opportunities to find each other, network and gather. It could again be argued that this set the scene for further the LGBTQ liberation efforts that transpired later.As I said, this was a fascinating little excursion. It was a reminder that sometimes interesting and even pleasant things are found in the most unexpected places. Just like some actions have unintended, for-the-better consequences.