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Book Review: Beyond Rosie the Riveter

By (September 22, 2012) 3 Comments

Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women of World War II in American Popular Graphic Art

by Donna B. Knaff

University Press of Kansas, 2012

In Beyond Rosie the Riveter, Donna Knaff invokes the familiar wartime icon of the feisty young women who fill the assembly-line job of men who’re then free to be deployed in combat. Knaff’s aim is to explore how popular magazines like Collier’s and The New Yorker explained – and sold – that radical social shift to the American public. It’s a fascinating subject, and Knaff has written a fascinating monograph – one that stumbles so badly right out of the starting-gate that reactionary (or easily irritated) critics might wonder if it could save itself from going splat on its face.

Chapter 1 Page 1 tells the reader about an ad commissioned by the U.S. Army for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – the ad ran in Life magazine in 1943, and it featured a handwritten letter from a fictional father to his daughter, who’s joined the WAAC. “You ask how I feel about your joining the WAAC,” the father writes. “The idea gives me a queer mixture of feelings.” The ad rousingly concludes with the father asserting, “I am firm in the belief that whatever your decision is, it won’t make you any less of a woman – just a wiser, steadier, stronger one.” All of which is interesting, pitched very consciously at an audience worried about the ‘masculinizing’ effect of work on a generation of young women – but it hardly matters: Knaff saw that word ‘queer’ and was promptly off to the races:

Indeed, “queer” at that moment carried the hint of a second meaning: It was already, by the beginning of World War II, a way to talk about sexuality and sexual identity. In this advertisement, the dual meaning of the term mattered. Working as a welder or a farm laborer, and more particularly, joining the military, required women to take on characteristics or attributes generally associated with men: their clothing (especially uniforms), behavior, and language, in addition to the formerly male work itself. Here, the word “queer” moved toward the sexually charged meaning it was beginning to acquire in a society that tended to equate mannishness with lesbianism (or vice versa).

This is just a couple of toucans short of a full zoo. Knaff cites references to ‘queer stockades’ set up by the Army for undesirable discharges, but that couldn’t matter less: we’re discussing one specific ad that appeared in Life. Absolutely nobody in the Army, at the ad agency, at Life magazine, or reading that “letter” thought for even one second that there was any “dual meaning” in that word “queer” in the context of that ad. It meant, as Knaff herself points out (before she succumbs), “odd.” It meant only “odd.” The reason Knaff saw that word – so entirely transparent in its context – and lost all control is that she’s a post-doctoral student and therefore woefully familiar with the current academic world, where vocabulary commonly (and absurdly) dictates discourse. We should count ourselves lucky the word wasn’t “niggardly,” or we’d be here all night.

A Pavlovian grope like this – on Page 1 – is a fairly dark and discommoding thing. It augurs a long Bataan Death March slog through every crackpot splinter-‘studies’ mania that’s ever gripped a modern English Department. And there are times when Knaff seems intent on being just that leaden (the most wince-inducing example comes after Knaff quotes a complaint made by the WACs in training during the winter in Des Moines, Iowa – they were petitioning to wear pants instead of skirts, and they wryly wrote that skirts “exposed to updrafts the loin in winter” – to which our author quickly adds, “another example of their less practical qualities” – sigh).

The miracle of Beyond Rosie the Riveter is that apart from these stumbles, it positively soars – and it does so in the most long-shot and impressive way imaginable: Knaff spends a good part of the rest of her text describing New Yorker cartoons. As anyone who’s ever tried it will attest, this is virtually impossible to do well, and yet our enterprising author does it well, again and again, to illuminating effect.

As Knaff reports, it’s a big subject. By the end of World War Two, roughly 350,000 women had served in the military. They’d been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. They’d been killed, wounded, and taken prisoner in every theater of the war, all over the world. And the changes on the home front were every bit as dramatic: in unprecedented numbers, women entered the work-force, in thousands of cases stepping into the stereotypically ‘male’ jobs left behind by workers gone to the armed services. Knaff finds a perfect quote from William Moulton Marston, the Harvard-educated creator of Wonder Woman – writing about justifying the existence of female super-heroes, but unintentionally addressing the upheavals for which his immortal creation would serve as emblem and shorthand:

It’s smart to be strong. It’s big to be generous, but it’s sissified, according to exclusively male rulers, to be tender, loving, affectionate, alluring. “Aw, that’s girl stuff!” snorts our young comics reader, “Who wants to be a girl?” And that’s the point: not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength … Women’s strong qualities have become despised because of their weak ones.

“Male veterans were expected to come back to and receive preference for employment because of all they had sacrificed for the country,” Knaff writes, in her thought-provoking pages on just what happened (and didn’t happen) when all those enlisted men came back home to the jobs that had been done – and in many cases done better – by women in their absence. This awkward phenomenon, too, was gleefully dissected in what Knaff refers to as “popular graphic art” (she means cartoons, but we take these things in baby steps), and our author gamely leads us through it all, in prose that’s almost always clear and often stylishly done. With any luck, academia won’t swallow Knaff whole; scholarship – and especially the shrill and troubled field of women’s studies – badly needs writers like her.

One suggestion? A book that hasn’t been rightly written for a popular audience but should be: The New Yorker Ladies: 90 Years of Women in the World’s Most Famous Cartoons (concentrating less on the stories of individual female artists – something which could hardly be done better than it was done in Liza Donnelly’s great Funny Ladies – and more on how the cartoons reflect changing societal attitudes). It would require a scholar’s rigor, a natural-born writer’s sensitivity, and that rare, uncanny knack for successfully describing New Yorker cartoons. Knaff is just the man for the job!