This statistic took my breath away: Half of all the women in Los Angeles County who have a child under the age of 5 live in poverty. How do they cope? What are the long-term implications for their children? How can we change this situation?
One answer came to me the night I attended the opening reception for the Los Angeles-based exhibit “Re-envisioning Rosie.” The exhibit features historical pictures of female World War II industrial plant workers along with current photographs of 15 of their contemporary counterparts who are working on our nation’s rail transit. You can read Surina Khan’s powerful Huffington Post article about the exhibit.
At the exhibit opening I had the fortune to speak with some of the women depicted in the photographs and hear their back stories. One woman came to her manufacturing job from a string of minimum wage positions in various pizza houses. Another tried to make ends meet in the underground economy of hair braiding.
The Rosies from the 1940’s were “working for victory” but darn it, these modern-day Rosies are also working for victory: victory over the barriers that keep them in minimum wage jobs and their families in poverty.
Heavy manufacturing jobs pay well and provide good employer benefits including medical insurance and retirement. With 40 percent of all households in America headed by a female wage earner, jobs in this rapidly growing sector could be an important catalyst for lifting women and their families out of poverty.
It has not been easy for women to enter this field. A University of Southern California study shows that modern Rosies make up just 13 percent of the workforce in rail transit manufacturing and only 30 percent in U.S. manufacturing overall. And yet, when given a chance, these women excel.
“The welders, the electricians, the assemblers—these women—have braved and conquered all odds to get hired into these positions,” said Madeline Janis, director of the Jobs to Move America Coalition.
Her thoughts are echoed by the Pulitzer prize winning photojournalist, Deanne Fitzmaurice, who photographed the modern Rosies: “The symbol of Rosie is about resilience and being hardworking and empowering.”
At the opening reception for the exhibit, which is housed at the Los Angeles Union Station until June 30, Michelle Boehm, a regional director of the California High Speed Rail Authority, spoke passionately about women’s future in manufacturing:
“An amazing, multibillion-dollar construction program is underway in California…And this is really the rising tide that will lift all boats and hopefully many many women’s boats.”
And her words took my breath away. But this time the gasp was of hope.