Real 'Rosie the Riveters' Celebrated in NYU Project

By Andrea Swalec on April 2, 2012 7:31am 

MANHATTAN — After the attack on Pearl Harbor, native New Yorker Esther Horne took a job in a factory on Hudson Street that made parachutes and gun holsters for the military. 

Horne, who was 19 at the time, joined millions of American women who went to work outside the home for the first time during World War II, manufacturing everything from shoelaces to fighter jets. 

The work was dirty and noisy, but it felt dignified, Horne told the makers of the oral history collection "The Real Rosie the Riveter Project," going on display Tuesday at NYU

"You worked in a spray of turpentine or something and cleaned yourself with motor oil at the end of the day," Horne, who was 87 when she was filmed, said on camera. "But you felt you were doing it for the war." 

"The Real Rosie the Riveter Project" — which drew inspiration from the iconic, 1940s "We Can Do It" poster showing a woman flexing her bicep — tells the story of dozens of women who worked in factories during World War II.

A panel discussion on the project at NYU Tuesday at 6 p.m. will feature two real "Rosies," executive producer and writer Elizabeth Hemmerdinger, filmmakers Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly and CUNY Graduate Center labor studies professor Ruth Milkman. 

Hemmerdinger, who began the project as research for a play she wrote as a student at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, said stories of the real Rosies provided a glimpse of life during World War II. 

“[The women] don’t talk just about walking into the factory," she said in a statement. "We get their whole lives. We get stories of the Depression — of racial, class and gender divides. A story of America.”

Hemmerdinger, de Mare and Kelly found the Rosies through friends, the American Rosie the Riveter Association and an ad they placed in a library association newsletter in Michigan, an NYU statement said. 

During two years of interviews, they found many women laborers in the manufacturing hubs of Detroit and Baltimore. 

Videotaped oral histories and transcripts included in "The Real Rosie the Riveter Project" are available online and in the Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at NYU.

Real-life Rosie Jerre Kalbas, who was raised in the South Bronx, said on camera, at age 91, that she took the Rosie moniker seriously. 

"With all the work that I did in the factory, the defense plants and the shipyard, I feel that I am Rosie the Riveter," she said. "I think we should be put out in public more and really recognized." 

Tuesday's discussion will be held at 70 Washington Square South. Members of the public can attend by emailing rsvp.bobst@nyu.edu.

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