“Meemaw, I got this coloring book at my theater class,” my oldest granddaughter said last week. “Will you color with me?”
I spend a fair amount of time coloring Disney princesses and other cartoon characters with my grandchildren. This time I was surprised to see a line drawing of a woman in a polka dot scarf with “World War II poster by Howard Miller, ca. 1942.” noted underneath.
“What does it say?” she asked as I started coloring the first few letters of the message at the top.
“It says, ‘We Can Do It!’” I replied.
“Who is she?”
“I think her name was Rosie and that her scarf was red with white polka dots,” I ventured, wondering if I had that right.
Yes, I remembered, this was the Rosie the Riveter poster used by the U.S. government to encourage women to work in factories during World War II but should I share that much detail with a five-year-old? I didn’t want to introduce negative ideas about women before she was old enough to process them.
I don’t know how old I was when I began to absorb my mother’s beliefs about women’s role in society. She didn’t work outside the home when I was a child because, even if she hadn’t been raising four children while our father traveled his five-state sales territory three weeks out of four, she was not interested in a career. She once said Dad told her no wife of his would work outside the home. Mom also believed women were too emotional to be President and she relied on our father to tell her how to vote. Of course, that was more likely due to her lack of interest in politics than my father’s expectation.
It seems crazy now but I was 36 when I first learned about women’s history in college. I was surprised to meet people whose mothers and grandmothers had taught them to think for themselves, prepare for a career and fight for women’s rights. By this time my oldest daughter was 17 and had also missed out on growing up with a mother who talked about these things.
My granddaughter chose a red crayon before asking, “Why is Rosie showing how strong she is?”
“Well, this picture was a poster many years ago, when Great Grandma was two years old; just a toddler. Not many women had jobs back then, mostly men.”
“Oh!” Her eyes widened with surprise. “Why didn’t women have jobs back then?”
“Because men didn’t think women could do some kinds of work. But then a lot of men had to go away to fight in a war and there weren’t enough people to do all the important jobs. So, this poster was saying, ‘You Can Do It, Ladies! Get a job to help our country during the war.’”
I braced for the next question, which might require me to explain the complexities of war but she had already focused on something else.
“Why did they think women couldn’t do the work?”
“Well, honey, I don’t know. It’s just the way things were back then.”
She thought for a moment before sharing her opinion matter-of-factly, still carefully coloring around the white polka dots on Rosie’s scarf. “The boys were wrong.”
There’s plenty of time for my granddaughter to learn how long it took to get here and how far women still have to go before we make up more than 10 or 20 percent of the workforce in science, technology, construction, government and executive leadership positions. But thanks to gender-neutral encouragement from her mother and father, she already knows the most important part.
“Yes, honey, the boys were wrong.”