WE CAN DO IT! Historian Wilbur Jones and actress Elizabeth Michaels pay tribute to women of World War II
The indelible image of Rosie the Riveter has long been an icon for the determination of American women. The bandana-clad factory worker has seen countless variations across all spectrums of pop culture, ranging from pin-ups to Halloween costumes. No matter what form she takes, Rosie remains a symbolic of steadfast determination. But how well do people remember what originally spurred her resolve? The World War II Wilmington Home Front Heritage Coalition aims to remind us about the struggles women faced on the home front during World War II. To this end, they’re hosting two presentations over the weekend, all about women in World War II, led by military historian Wilbur Jones and actress Elizabeth Michaels.
Jones is the coalition founder and chairperson, and he traces his love of military history back to his childhood in southeastern North Carolina. Nostalgia can be a powerful motivator, and in Jones’ case it led to a storied career spanning three decades of military immersion.
“My interest in military history came out of World War II because that was our whole life growing up here,” he reminisces. “I was 7 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered the war, but I have very vivid memories of it. We pretended we were marines in the Pacific or soldiers in Europe. We fought the war right along with them. So, it was natural for me to eventually go into the armed forces.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in history, Jones embarked on what would become a 33-year-long career in the armed forces. His positions ranged from Navy captain to professor at the Defense Acquisition University in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. After retiring in 1984, he devoted himself to writing about military history. Since, he’s written 18 books and contributes regularly to The Star News as a local historian. Although his writing focuses on all aspects of World War II, his favorite topic is the powerful role women played on the American home front.
“I was attracted to what women have done because the subject, for the most part, hasn’t been covered,” Jones explains. “I think it’s a fascinating subject because we, America, could not have won the war without the participation of women on the home front or in the armed forces.”
This fascination naturally led Jones to research all things “Rosie.” In doing so, he’s amassed countless Rosie memorabilia throughout the years, all of which will be on display as part of the exhibit “Rosie the Riveter: American Women in World War II” at Hannah Block Community Center this month.
Of all Rosie souvenirs, the original poster depicting her flexing her muscles, proclaiming, “We can do it!” remains the most powerful to Jones. Rosie’s determination continues to inspire him, and her proud declaration is a key part of Jones’ discussion.
“I point out how [the poster] has two meanings,” he elaborates. “First of all, we can do it as a nation—meaning the United States can and will win the war. The second meaning is women can do it because the era was the start of the women’s movement in the United States. Women, for the first time in droves, got out of the kitchen, out of the home and into the workplace. It generated what became the women’s rights movement, postwar.”
Complementing Jones’ presentation is a performance by Michaels, a fresh arrival to Wilmington’s theatre scene, who often performs as Rosie in a show of her own creation. Michaels honed her dramatic skills by joining travelling theatre troupes straight out of high school, and credits touring for her prowess in engaging audiences of all sizes. Although she finds herself at home in any aspect of stage performance, Michaels made her mark by writing and performing her own one-woman shows about powerful women in American history.
“I got hooked up with the American Historical Theatre [AHT] in Philadelphia in 2000,” she remarks. “I started working with them and doing a whole lot of different roles. First, I played Quaker woman, Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin’s wife, so I’ve played a lot of historical figures, but Rosie was one I developed myself and wrote the scripts for. Then AHT would send me out to different places [in the tri-state area] through their humanities grants to perform my shows. I would go to libraries and social clubs because they’re the people who were really interested in history.”
She sees in Rosie a common image for the modern woman. Much like Jones, she is moved by the contributions made by women during wartime. Through her performances, Michaels hopes to relay the hardships faced by entering the workforce and paving the way for gender equality.
“I find she’s every woman,” Michaels elaborates. “There were a few Rosies in real life, and they actually worked in the factories and all, but I think Rosie is just one of these characters that showed she could do it. She was not just some stay-at-home housewife, waiting for her man, being unable to do anything because she was a little woman. She showed how strong she was, and I think that’s something people forget about because it was a very different time then. Sometimes when I talk to young teenagers about this, and I tell them how the men got paid more than the women even though they were doing the same job, the kids say, ‘That’s not fair, they should have sued!’ I have to remind them how it was then and how those things didn’t happen, and how hard it was for women to get into a business.”
There could be no better venue for the event than the Hannah Block Community Center. As a restored USO building from the 1930s, Jones ensures any money spent will support its upkeep.
“The important thing about our event is we charge a minimum fee with a discount to veterans and senior citizens, but the money goes into the preservation fund for the Hannah Block building,” he clarifies. “For example, I don’t ask for—nor am I paid—a nickel for what I’m doing. We’re very community-oriented in this town, particularly about things like this.”
Rosie the Riveter: American Women in World War II
Hannah Block Community Center
120 S. Second St.
Oct. 20, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 22, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $12-$15; senior, group and military discounts available