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"Rosie the Riveter" Coveralls

Women's coveralls worn by Teresa Kuykendall while working in a factory in Beloit, Wisconsin during World War II.
(Museum object #2007.92.1)

Teresa Kuykendall of Beloit, Wisconsin was a real life "Rosie the Riveter" during World War II. In 1943 she began working for Fairbanks, Morse & Company, a Beloit factory that manufactured diesel engines for the Navy at the time. While there, Teresa learned to run lathes, drills, and milling machines. In a factory setting, women workers had to wear industrial clothing. Consequently Fairbanks Morse issued them standard blue cotton coveralls. Teresa received at least three pairs of coveralls, which she saved until her death in 2005. Each was well worn and had been carefully repaired with darning and patches.

During the war coveralls like these became the symbol of Rosie the Riveter, a fictional character who symbolized working women, especially those in factories. Rosie, immortalized by painter Norman Rockwell in 1943, had been created by the federal government "to sell the importance of the war effort and to lure women into working." As portrayed in a famous "We Can Do It" poster and a popular 1942 song, Rosie represented the ideal female worker: "loyal, efficient, patriotic, and pretty." Teresa may have met all those characteristics.

Born on November 22, 1920 in Cold Springs (Jefferson Co.), Wisconsin, Teresa Monthie married Clement H. Kuykendall and moved to Beloit when she was only 16 years old. Like many women in working-class families, Teresa had to work and took positions in several factories in the Beloit area, including a tomato canning plant, before being hired at Fairbanks Morse.

On May 26, 1943 Teresa wrote a letter to her brother Private Gilberth Monthie telling him about her new position. Teresa mentioned that she has "to go to school for about 5 weeks first. They pay you while you go, get 38 1/2 cents. I have to study 8 hrs. a day. We have blueprint reading, study of drills, tool grinding, tool inspection, and two hrs. of machine shop. We learn to run lathes, shapes machines, milling machines, etc."

In 1943 Fairbanks Morse had factory jobs available for women like Teresa because so many men had left for military service just as production demand rose dramatically. Manufacturers across the country began actively recruiting women to take the place of these missing men. At least half of the women who took wartime jobs were like Teresa, minority or lower-class women already in the workforce but at lower-paying jobs. She was one of the 12 million women already working at the beginning of the war. When the war ended in 1945, there were 18 million women at work (one third of the American workforce). Three million of these women worked in war plants, the others had more traditional female occupations.

During the war companies desperate for workers first hired girls right out of high school. Later, with positions still unfilled, they sought out middle-class women, a group that traditionally had not worked outside the home. Many of the women who chose to break with their traditional roles discovered the excitement of working: learning new skills, contributing to the war effort, and proving themselves in men's jobs.

Even though manufacturers and the United States government with its Rosie the Riveter promotion urged women into the workforce during the war, they also emphasized that this was a temporary measure. Once the war was over and men returned to civilian life, most women returned to lives as homemakers. If they stayed, they generally moved into lower-paying jobs.

As for Teresa, around 1951 she and Clement divorced. Two years later she married Eugene C. Davis. Teresa continued working at Fairbanks Morse after the war and stayed on the job until 1960, quitting shortly after becoming pregnant with her first child at the age of forty.

[Sources: Telephone interview with Sandy Miller, Teresa Davis's daughter, by WHS Museum staff, July 2007; "Rosie the Riveter: Women Working during World War II: The Image and Reality of Women Who Worked during World War II" online National Park Service exhibit at www.nps.gov.]

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Posted on August 16, 2007

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