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‘An Inadvertent Revolution’ Women on the World War II Home Front

By Geneviève Duboscq, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 25, 2007

After her mother’s death in 1999, journalist Emily Yellin came across the wartime diary and hundreds of letters her mother had written home from the Pacific while working with the Red Cross. Within days, Yellin could see that “My mother’s story served as a window through which to see the story of all the women in World War II.” 

Yellin, who wrote for the New York Times for 10 years, tells that broader story in her book Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II. She will speak at a gala event on Friday, Sept. 28, at Richmond’s Marina Bay to kick off the Home Front Festival by the Bay. The festival celebrates both the city’s role during World War II and the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. 

Reached by phone at her home in Memphis, Yellin spoke about the women who moved into the workforce to take the place of the 16 million men—farm laborers, mailmen, milkmen, movie ushers, salesmen, and many more—who volunteered or were drafted into the service after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. 

To counteract the sudden shortage of manpower, the federal government went into action to convince reluctant Americans that the nation needed women of all classes to enter the workforce. 

According to Yellin, “We went from the Depression to World War II, and during the Depression, women did not work. The women who did work were usually in the financially lower rungs of the working world. 

“For those women, World War II raised up the opportunity, so someone who had been working as a housecleaner was able to work in a factory and make a lot more money. In fact, there’s a quote in the book by an African American woman who said, ‘It was Hitler who got us out of the white man’s kitchen.’” 

Before 1940, 11.5 million women already worked for pay. And 6.5 million women joined them in the war years. More than 2.5 million women took war production jobs, working with ships, airplanes, tanks, Jeeps, or munitions. 

Yellin interviewed Bessie Stokes of Pennsylvania, a white woman who had gone from earning $2 a week cleaning houses before the war to well over $30 a week inspecting bombshells in a factory beginning in 1941. She worked there until 1946, when her husband, Spike, returned from the service. 

“I kept every one of my pay stubs from all my work. So when Spike came back from the war, the first day he was home, I put them in front of him. And I said, ‘Don’t you ever tell me I have to depend on you for a living.’” Spike’s response was to look at his wife proudly and say, “Oh girl, you proved it.” 

“I think it was a revolution for women’s role in our society,” said Yellin, “but it was inadvertent. It wasn’t like 20 to 30 years later, with the women’s liberation movement; that was very deliberate. This was very much an inadvertent revolution, so these women stepped in and did what was asked of them and what they were allowed to do.” 

The revolution took place all over the United States, according to Yellin, as women moved into work previously reserved for men. But most in society assumed that this was only a temporary arrangement. 

“Every region of the country was affected by the war,” said Yellin. Shipbuilding took place along the east and west coasts and the Gulf of Mexico. Auto plants in the Midwest and elsewhere stopped building cars in 1942, converting their shops to build engines and parts for military vehicles. Richmond’s Ford assembly plant outfitted Jeep and tank bodies. The South and the east were home to munitions plants. And the west coast was the home of airplane manufacturing. 

Even before the U.S. entered the war, industrialist Henry J. Kaiser landed a government contract to build ships for Great Britain. Despite having no experience in shipbuilding, he opened his Richmond business in late 1940.  

Richmond’s population boomed from about 23,000 at the start of the war to over 100,000 people by the war’s end.  

According to Donna Graves of the National Park Service, author of a 2004 report titled “Mapping Richmond’s World War II Home Front,” “Recruitment of workers for the four Kaiser shipyards … changed the city’s ethnic composition, increasing the African American community by a factor of ten,” and bringing in more Latinos and Chinese Americans. 

The shipyards ran day and night. Kaiser shipbuilders crafted Liberty and Victory ships, once completing a Liberty ship in just under 5 days. The Red Oak Victory ship, now under restoration, will be open for viewing during the Home Front Festival. 

According to Donald Bastin, director of the Richmond Museum of History and author of the book Richmond, “Kaiser wanted to eliminate all barriers to production” for his 90,000 workers, 27 percent of whom were women, “and that included transport, health care, and child care.” 

Housing was scarce, and services could not keep up with the influx of workers arriving from all over the United States, some without a network of family who could care for their children.  

Federal funds from the 1942 Lanham Act made possible the opening of five child care centers in Richmond in 1943.  

Said Yellin, “Day care was a new concept essentially because people weren’t used to leaving their children with someone else. That was women’s responsibility, the children, the home, and women didn’t go outside of the home.” 

By the end of the war, Richmond had 14 child care centers and had taken care of about 1,400 children, said Joseph Fischer, curator of an exhibit of art by children at the centers that is now showing at the Richmond Museum of History. A selection will be on display at the Home Front Festival. 

Kaiser’s other innovation, and the reason most people now know his name, was providing group health care for his workers. The Richmond Field Hospital treated sick and injured workers near the job site, and the Permanente Hospital in Oakland provided additional service. 

Yellin added, “I think we forget how [war] permeated every aspect of people’s lives. So when we say ‘the home front,’ it sounds like a cozy place, but it really wasn’t, just as the battle front was not a cozy place.” Everyone lived with the thought that beloved family members on the front might be wounded or die at any time. 

“The effect of this war was so prevalent that wherever you looked, you couldn’t really get away from it, that is what living on the home front was.” 

The Home Front Festival will host the “Think Big” exhibit, with information about Kaiser’s life and work. Additional events include a Rosie Reunion for former shipyard workers, a USO dance and show, music performances, arts and crafts, historic tours of the bay, and visits of the tall ship Alma and FDR’s yacht the Potomac. 


For tickets, call 235-1315. Emily Yellin will also sign copies of her book on Sunday at the Ford building beginning at 11:30 a.m. 



Home Front Festival By the Bay 

The festival kicks off on Friday, Sept. 28 with a 9 a.m.-2 p.m. rally at the park headquarters at the Ford Building Craneway on the Richmond Waterfront, followed by a Rosie the Riveter Trust Fund dinner from 6 to 10 p.m. 

Saturday will see activities at four separate locations, representing the spread-out nature of the Rosie the Riveter Park.  

Music and other entertainment, food and arts and crafts booths, and a children’s zone will be presented from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial at Marina Bay. Entrance fee to the Marina Bay event is $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and children 6-12.  

At Shipyard No. 3, a pancake breakfast will be held at the Red Oak Victory World War II era restored cargo ship, with ceremonies at 11 a.m. launching the national park featuring nationally known performance artist Linda Tillery. A Vintage Military Vehicle Show will be held at the shipyard from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and interpretive tours from noon to 3 p.m. 

At the Harbor Master's Dock, historic tours of the bay will be held on the historic schooner “Alma” from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

And at the Ford Building Craneway, a USO Dance and Show will be held from 7-10 p.m. 

On Sunday the festival events at the Rosie the Riveter Memorial at Marina Bay will be repeated. At the Ford Building Craneway, a presentation on the story of Henry K. Kaiser and reunions for former World War II home front workers will be held from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. At the Harbor Master’s Dock, historic bay tours will be held 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on the trawler Delphinus, as well as tours of the moored presidential yacht Potomac that was once used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

A full schedule of homefront festival events are available on the Rosie the Riveter Park website at 


Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park: 

To submit a story for the oral history project, call (800) 497-6743. 


Emily Yellin’s book, Our Mothers’ War: 


Donna Graves, “Mapping Richmond’s World War II Home Front,” NPS, July 2004: 


Bay Area World War II sites: