During World War II, Michigan was known as the "Arsenal of Democracy." To earn that title, many factories in our state converted from producing car parts, refrigerators, and commercial vacuum motors to making tanks, airplanes, submarines, landing craft, trucks, locomotives, and more. Because many of America's men had enlisted in the armed services, factory jobs were often filled by women who became known as Rosie the Riveters.
"In towns like Muskegon—home of dozens of defense plants—Rosie's work was done by real life women named Billie Hall, Leona Higginson, Mildred Langlois, Blanche Bird, Edith McCue, Helen Kienke, Doris Harvey, and many, many more." My Great-Great Aunt was Wilda "Billie" Hall who worked at Continental Motors in Muskegon, MI building 47-ton Patton medium tank engines and aircraft engines. Aunt Billie and her fellow Rosies worked hard, but they liked working with their friends and making their own money so they could be more independent. Irene Tufts was a Rosie who worked as a machine and drill press operator at the downtown Muskegon Continental plant. She said, "I took to it right away!" and that she was one of only two women in her department. Women like Mildred Malmanger, who now lives in Grand Rapids, MI, carried their own heavy toolboxes. Mrs. Malmanger was so enthusiastic and excited about her work during World War II that she kept her toolbox, some of her tools, and the employee handbooks from when she was a Rosie.
Even though most women thought working was great, they faced new challenges. Mothers had difficulty balancing schedules, especially with young children at home. Many had to hire babysitters or use daycare. Maxine Heese was a Rosie who worked at Clarke Flooring in Muskegon, winding armatures for airplanes. She didn't like that women didn't get seniority back then. Even though she worked there for 31 years, she said, "Every time I had a baby, I had to quit. I had to keep quitting. I only ended up with eleven years seniority because I had to quit." Norene Flickema started out working at Anaconda Wire and Cable in Muskegon. She quit because her husband, a soldier fighting the war, was on leave in Florida, and when she asked to go visit him, the supervisor said that she would have to quit to do that. She said, "I quit!" When she got back, she had family members working at Norge Machine Products in Muskegon, so she got a job there making gun mounts. The union called her when she was working at Norge and said that Anaconda had no right to fire her, but she said, "Thanks, but no thanks. … I was making $1.20/hour." Anaconda was only paying $0.40/hour.
Another challenge that the Rosies faced was that men didn't like women taking their jobs. They thought women couldn't do as good a job, which showed in women's pay. "The women got paid less for doing the same job. That's not right," Maxine stated. Women proved the men wrong, and showed that they could do these jobs just as well, or better, than the men.
Michigan's greatest contribution to the war was made by our factory workers, especially Rosie the Riveters, and the amazing work that they did. There were Rosies working all over Muskegon. They believed that it was their patriotic duty to work, because it would help to win the war and bring their family members home faster. They did many different jobs, like building tank engines and gun mounts. Some women worked in test rooms, some were inspectors, some made coils, and some made piston rings. At the nearby Campbell-Wyant-Cannon plant, Rosies worked side-by-side with men to build diesel crankshafts for submarines such as the U.S.S. Silversides, which is now docked in the Muskegon channel and serving as a World War II museum. Rosies contributed their time, energy, and effort to make sure that the country succeeded.