Life with Gracie: Rosie the Riveters gathering in Atlanta


EVENT PREVIEW

18th Annual American Rosie the Riveter Association Convention

June 10-12. $25. Holiday Inn & Suites — Atlanta Airport North, 1380 Virginia Ave., Atlanta. 770-972-8339, www.rosietheriveter.net.

The “Rosie the Riveter” poster is prominently displayed in the family room of Jean Ousley’s Lawrenceville home, a cherished gift from her son Matthew.

The wartime feminist anthem showing a woman in a jumpsuit and a red-and-white polka-dot bandanna flexing her biceps has been a source of pride for Ousley for years and not just for sentimental reasons.

Ousley’s mother, Laura Belle Spriggs, was among some 6 million women nationwide who kept the country and the war effort afloat.

Their legacy will be honored June 10-12 at the 18th annual American Rosie the Riveter Association convention in Atlanta.

ExploreOrganizers expect nearly 20 original Rosies, now in their late 80s and their 90s, to be in attendance. Ousley, president of the national association, estimates that there are more than 5,400 people from virtually every state in the nation who are members of the nonprofit. Four chapters are in Georgia.

She and her mother first joined in 2002, when it held its conventions at the Little White House in Warm Springs, Ga.

Back then, Ousley read about the upcoming convention in the newspaper, and the two of them decided to go.

“The idea of these ladies who were giving up so much by joining an all-male workforce and continuing to care for their families really spoke to me,” Ousley said. “I was just proud of her for having done that, for having taken the leap to contribute so much to the war effort. I considered it a mark of distinction for a woman.”

Laura Belle first took that leap in 1944 shortly after marrying her high-school sweetheart, Sam Spriggs. After several years of farming, Sam was drafted into the U.S. Army and shipped to Battle Creek, Mich., for basic training.

In an unusual move, Laura Belle decided to go with him. While Sam Spriggs trained, she worked in a nearby Kellogg plant packing K-rations.

When her husband’s unit, the 785th Military Police Battalion, headed to Wilmington, Calif., for more training, she followed him there, too.

“The amazing thing for me was she’d lived her entire life on farms in Oconee and Gwinnett County,” Ousley said. “She had never been out of the metro Atlanta area before then, but she hopped a train to both places.”

While in California, Laura Belle went to work for a shipyard as a welder before getting an office job keeping production records.

Contributions by her and other Georgians on the home front and overseas were vital to the war effort. Almost every major city had a training installation. There were 320,000 Georgians serving in the military. The state’s factories and textile mills converted to produce items for the war, and “Rosie the Riveters” staffed those facilities.

Airplanes were manufactured by Rosies working at Marietta’s Bell Bomber plant. They built ships at both the Southeast Shipbuilding Corp. and at J.A. Jones Shipyards in Brunswick.

“Rosie the Riveters” working at Enterprise Aluminum in Eatonton quit making “Drip O lator” coffeepots and began making canteens, utensils and fins for bombs. At the American Chatillon Corp. in Rome, they manufactured synthetic silk for parachutes.

Textile mills like Bibb Manufacturing in Columbus converted to produce gas masks, uniforms, life rafts and camouflage nets. Patriotism and the work ethic by “Rosie the Riveters” making military uniforms at the textile mills resulted in those factories receiving the government’s “E” award.

Rosies who worked in U.S. factories during the war are credited with building 290,000 airplanes, 100,000 ships and 370,000 pieces of artillery. They drove buses and cabs, worked in gas stations and did other jobs considered “nontraditional” at the time. Some government recruiting posters described them as “soldiers without guns.”

The magnitude of their contribution is memorialized in a quote by Col. Oveta Culp Hobby inscribed at the WWII Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the nation, not as women … this was a people’s war and everyone was in it.”

“It is the legacy of these women that allowed women in the ’40s and ’50s to enter the workforce in great numbers,” Ousley said. “There were women working in the five-and-dime stores for pennies an hour who suddenly increased their earnings — even if it wasn’t yet equal pay. It began to bridge the pay gap. Many of them had to join unions in order to do the work, but they even had to keep banging on the door in order to get into the unions.”

Last week, a bill to establish a National Rosie the Riveter Day passed the U.S. House and is now awaiting a vote in the Senate.

Ousley is more than a little excited about that.

“It should’ve been established in 1955,” she said. “It’s high time.”