On Labor Day, a celebration of ‘Rosies,’ the women who kept the factories churning during WWII
BRAINTREE — It didn’t matter that Mary Kennedy wore “unglamorous” overalls, as she called them, or a tool belt slung off her waist, steel-toed boots that never kept her feet warm, and goggles. She was a young woman in the 1940s and a welder on massive Navy ships, one of 1,200 women working at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy.
Now 95, Kennedy was and remains a “Rosie,” a title taken from “Rosie the Riveter,” a painting by Norman Rockwell turned recruitment poster and iconic emblem of World War II ingenuity.
On Monday, Labor Day, these women, the thousands of Rosies who stepped up to take over jobs traditionally done by men in factories, shipyards, and companies while their brothers, fathers, and husbands fought on the war’s front lines, will be celebrated and remembered.
The National Parks of Boston will hold a ceremony at 1 p.m. at the Charlestown Navy Yard, followed by a “Rosie’s Navy Yard” walking tour and viewing of a new temporary exhibit called “SWONs: Shipbuilding Women of the Navy” in the visitor center.
Bell-ringing ceremonies will take place in other cities around the country, as well. In Quincy, Kennedy’s younger sister, Bertha Glavin, 92, also a Rosie, will ring a bell outside the United First Parish Church.
“We started this program three years ago and one of the reasons we wanted to do it was because no one was talking about these women,” said Jocelyn Gould, a park guide with the National Parks of Boston. “They’re great role models still to this day for the younger generation.”
Kennedy fondly recalled her days as a welder. She loved wielding a torch, melting metal, and watching the christening of ships.
“We worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” she said, seated in a wheelchair in a Braintree nursing home Wednesday afternoon. Her voice was quiet, but her smile was broad. “It was hard work.”
Kennedy and Glavin grew up in Dorchester with four brothers, the children of Italian immigrants. Kennedy went to work as a welder at the age of 19. Glavin studied to be a bookkeeper and worked with several companies from the age of 16, including one that produced Navy raincoats. Several years ago, it was Glavin who reached out to the American Rosie the Riveter Association to honor her older sister and officially register her as a “Rosie.”
“After the woman took that information, she said, ‘And what did you do?’ ” Glavin recalled. “And I said, ‘Me? I couldn’t do work in the shipyard. I was too young.’ And she said, ‘But where were you? What did you do?’ So I told her and she said, ‘So you’re a Rosie, too.’ ”
Her son, Matt Glavin, calls her “the director,” always making sure everything was done right. The way she remembers it, she was a typical teenage “bobby soxer,” known for their poodle skirts and ankle socks. But she worked two jobs: as a bookkeeper during the day and at an ice cream parlor or hamburger joint at night. Later she was the head of the Home and School Association in Dorchester.
“There are many Rosies now that are [reaching] 100 years old,” said Anne Montague, who launched the “Rosie the Riveter” movement and began holding bell ceremonies two years ago. “They lived through not only World War II, but the Depression era and then moved to the women’s movement.”
Montague, who is based in West Virginia but used to live in Boston, has interviewed hundreds of Rosies as a way to learn about her family history. Her mother worked in a factory during the war inspecting lenses for periscopes and guns. She could still see flaws after the machine inspection.
“My mom would tell me, ‘You are very, very lucky you’re going to grow up in a free world. You can get an education and as a woman you can do things women never did before. Don’t waste it,’ ” Montague said. “They will never say they’re as important as the men but I believe they are.”
Even at 98, Peggy Citarella still refuses to be called a Rosie. The Vermonter was and will always be a “Winnie the Welder,” another symbol of the wartime women. Citarella was, in fact, the first female welder at the Charlestown Navy Yard.
“How much does it take to put a screw in a gun and fill a hole that’s already been pre-drilled?” Citarella said in a phone interview on Thursday. “I think I enjoyed the masculinity of welding. It wasn’t anything dainty, as women usually have to do.”
She rang the bell in 2016, the first year the Charlestown Navy Yard held the ceremony for women workers from World War II. To this day, she judges the welding jobs on ships she’s visited.
Citarella, who was Peggy Merigo at the time, remembers that when she was a young woman in Somerville, trade schools laughed at her or told her to try cooking school. She found a reluctant welding teacher in Newton who realized she was a natural.
Soon, Citarella was training men. She said she was the only woman trusted to work on submarines. She remembers hearing of vessels at sea that had problems because of poor workmanship.
“I vowed that no young man was going to be put in jeopardy because of my bad work,” Citarella said. “I still miss it. It’s a fascinating job. Whenever you get through with something, you feel you’ve accomplished something.”