Rare Color Photos Show American Women at Work During World War II

World War II wasn’t just fought on the battlefield. On the homefront, everyday Americans joined the war effort. They planted victory gardens, organized scrap metal drives, bought war bonds, and embracing rationing. And many women went to work.

As men joined the military to fight the Japanese and Germans armies, women were drafted into service as well. There simply weren’t enough men to produce the planes, ships, and the other materials America needed to win the war, so women were welcomed at a variety of jobs that had previously been off-limits.

These rare color photos offer a unique look back at this important time in U.S. history.

1. Rosie the Riveter

We Can Do It! poster
We Can Do It! poster | U.S. National Archives

The government quickly went to work recruiting women for vital defense industry jobs. Propaganda posters urged women to “do the job he left behind” and “work to bring ‘em back.”

But it’s the famous image of “Rosie the Riveter” that most people today associate with working women during World War II. J. Howard Miller, an artist working for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, created the now-iconic poster in 1943.

Next: Meet the real Rosies

2. A real Rosie at work

woman building a bomber
A woman building a bomber | Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Congress

In this photo from 1943, an unnamed woman holding a hand drill works on assembling a Vengeance dive bomber at the Vultee Aircraft plant in Nashville, Tennessee

Roughly 600,000 African-American women found jobs in the defense industry during the war. Though they faced racism in workplace, these jobs offered new opportunities for women who’d largely been restricted to jobs in domestic service or agriculture.

Next: Women across the country picked up their tools

3. Embracing factory jobs

Riveter at work during WWII
An unidentified female riveter | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

An unnamed female riveter works on a bomber at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas, in October 1942. She was one of the many women who helped grow the female percentage of women in the U.S. workforce from 27% in 1940 to 37% in 1945. Though many women said they’d like to keep their jobs when the war ended, most ended up leaving the workforce as veterans returned home.

Next: Women and men worked side-by-side

4. Men and women become coworkers

Man and woman building a plane
An unidentified man and woman at work at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant in Fort Worth, Texas. | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

In another photo taken at the Consolidated Aircraft plant in Fort Worth, an unidentified man and woman work with rivet guns to assemble a Liberator bomber in October 1942. While many men joined the military, others worked side-by-side with women in defense factories around the country.

Next: War widows go to work

5. Pearl Harbor widows join the war effort

Pearl Harbor widow
Virginia Young and Ethel Mann | Howard R. Hollem/Library of Congress

The attack on Pearl Harbor spurred America’s entry into World War II. More than 2,400 people lost their lives on December 7, 1941, including the husband of Virginia Young (pictured above at right), who was one of the first casualties of the attack.

Young went to work as a supervisor in the Assembly and Repairs Department at the Naval Air Base in Corpus Christi, Texas. Here, she’s shown helping Ethel Mann, a factory worker from out of state, find a place to live in August 1942.

Next: Not all women worked on the factory floor

6. Testing the B-25 bomber

Testing the B-25
Testing the B-25 | Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Congress

In this photo from October 1942, members of the experimental staff at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood, California, observe wind tunnel tests on a scale model of the B-25 bomber. The B-25 bomber was used in General Doolittle’s famous Tokyo Raid in April 1942.

Next: High school students join the war effort

7. High school girls in aeronautics class

high school students during World War II
Students at Washington High School in Los Angeles | Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Congress

These teenagers might have been too young to go to work in a defense factory, but schools made an effort to train students for the jobs they’d eventually need to take to support the war effort. These two young women are learning about propeller characteristics in an aeronautics class at Washington High School in Los Angeles in September 1942. The teacher is Ralph Angar.

Next: College students also focused on winning the war.

8. Camouflage class

Camouflage class at New York University
A woman in a camouflage class at New York University in 1943 | Marjory Collins/Library of Congress

College students also took classes that helped prepare them for jobs in the defense industry or the military. In this photo from March 1943, a female student at New York University is shown correcting mistakes on a model of a camouflaged defense plant. The students made models from aerial photographs, photographed the models, and then created a camouflage scheme and took a final photograph.

Next: Some women put their studies on hold

9. College could wait  

Women at Naval Air Base Corpus Christi during World War II
Women at Naval Air Base Corpus Christi during World War II | Howard R. Hollem/Library of Congress

Some young women put down their textbooks in order to devote themselves to America’s effort to win the war. Eloise Ellis, a former sociology major at the University of Southern California, went to work as a supervisor in the Assembly and Repair Department at the Naval Air Base in Corpus Christi. Her job involved helping women who worked at the base with housing and personal problems. She’s shown here at right with Jo Ann Whittington, a trainee at the plant.

Next: An important training location for naval aviators

10. A vital part of the war effort

Eloise Ellis
Eloise J. Ellis stands near the tail of a Navy plane at Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas, August 1942. | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

Naval Air Base Corpus Christi was an important training location for naval aviator during the war. Construction of the base began in 1940, as it became clear that the U.S. was likely to enter the war. During the war years, 35,000 men completed flight training there, including future president George Herbert Walker Bush. Meanwhile, women like Eloise Ellis (pictured above) helped keep the base running smoothly.

Next: Life at a defense factory

11. Taking a lunch break   

women factory workers WWII
Female workers on their lunch break at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Long Beach. | Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Congress

Women in the defense industry worked hard. This photo from October 1942 shows two workers at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Long Beach, California, taking a short lunch break. The sandbags they’re standing in front of were for protection from air raids. Among the aircraft made at this plant were the B-17 and A-20 bombers and the C-47 transport plane.

Next: Details mattered

12. Painting an airplane

painting an airplane
Civil Service employee (and former office worker) Irma Lee McElroy paints insignia on airplane wings at the Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, Texas, August 1942. | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

Civil service employee Irma Lee McElroy hand paints insignia on an airplane wing at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi in August 1942. McElroy was a former office worker and her husband was a flight instructor at the base.

Next: The work was hard.

 13. Machining parts  

Machining Plane Parts
An unidentified lathe operator machines parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, Fort Worth, Texas, October 1942. | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

In this photo from 1942, an unnamed woman works as a lathe operator machining parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant in Fort Worth, Texas. As many as 38,000 people worked at the Fort Worth plant, which was a mile long. Many were women who moved from small Texas towns to work the factory jobs, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Next: Building the C-87 Liberator

 14. The C-87 Liberator  

Building a C-87 liberator
Helen Bray works on the empennage (or tail section) of a C-87 Liberator Express | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

Helen Bray was also an employee at Consolidated Aircraft. Here, she’s seen working on the tail section for a C-87 Liberator Express at the company’s Fort Worth factory. Nearly 300 of the transport planes were built at the plant.

Next: Building the P-51 fighter plane  

15. The P-51 fighter plane

Working on the P-51
Two North American Aviation, Inc. employees assemble a section of a wing for a P-51 fighter plane, October 1942. | Alfred T. Palmer/Getty Images

In this photo from October 1942, two women who worked at North American Aviation assemble a section of the wing for a P-51 fighter plane at the company’s plant in Inglewood, California.

In 1944, the Truman Senate War Investigating Committee called the P-51 “the most aerodynamically perfect pursuit plane in existence.”

Next: Building bombers  

16. Building the Vengeance dive bomber

women at work WWII
Two women workers at a factory in Nashville, Tennessee | Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Congress

 In this photo from February 1943, two women cap and inspect tubing for the manufacture of the Vengeance dive bomber at the Vultee Aircraft plant in Nashville, Tennessee. The Vengeance was a single-engine, low-wing plane that carried a crew of two and had six machine guns. The plane was designed in response to the German Stuka dive-bomber, though the U.S. military never used it in combat.

Next: Taking stock

17. Doing inventory

Doing inventory
An unidentified stock clerk takes inventory in a storeroom at North American Aviation, Inc., Inglewood, California, October 1942. | Alfred T. Palmer/Getty Images

In this photo from October 1942, an unidentified stock clerk takes inventory in a storeroom at the North American Aviation plant in Inglewood. World War II helped start California’s mid-century boom. The state was home to numerous military bases and defense plants, which drew people to the state and caused its population to swell. Some called it a “second gold rush.”

Next: Working mothers

18. Mothers went to work, too  

Virginia Davis
Virginia Davis | Howard R. Hollem/Library of Congress

Many of the women who went to work in the nation’s factories were mothers who had to balance a full-time job with caring for children, often with a husband away at war. This photo shows Virginia Davis, the mother of two small children, working at the Naval Air Base in Corpus Christi. She worked alongside her husband in the assembly and repair department. Her training meant that if her husband was called to serve, she could take his place.

Next: Women didn’t just build planes. 

19. Making blackout lights

Making blackout lights
A Heil and Co. employee works on black-out lamps for Air Force gasoline trailers | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

Women didn’t just work at building aircraft. In this photo, dated February 1943, Lucile Mazurek, an employee at Heil and Co. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, builds blackout lamps for use on Air Force gasoline trailers. Milwaukee was a manufacturing city and many companies and residents were involved in the war effort, including Harley-Davidson, which produced motorcycles for the military.

Next: Working on the railroad

20. Keeping America on track

Female railway workers WWII
Women workers at the Chicago & North Western Railroad roundhouse eat their lunch in the break room, Clinton, Iowa, April 1943. | Jack Delano/Getty Images

Women also helped keep America’s railroads running during the war years. These women worked on the Chicago & North Western Railroad. They’re shown here eating their lunch in the roundhouse in Clinton, Iowa, in April 1943. Pictured are Marcella Hart (at left, wearing a red bandanna) and Elibia Siematter (far right, wearing overalls and a hat with goggles.) The other women are unidentified.

Next: A change of career

 21. Finding a new purpose

Dorothy Cole
Sculptress, tile designer, and Baxter Laboratories employee Dorothy Cole works in her converted basement workshop where she tin plates needles for blood transfusion bottle valves, Glenview, Illinois, October 1942. | Howard R. Hollem/Getty Images

This 1942 photo shows Dorothy Cole working in her basement workshop to tin plate needles for valves for blood transfusion bottles manufactured by Baxter Laboratories in Glenview, Illinois. Previously, Cole had worked as a sculptor and tile designer but she shifted gears during the war. She used the profits from her work to buy war bonds, which she used to fund a college education for her nephew.

Next: Feeding America

22. Packing oranges

Packing oranges
Packing oranges | Jack Delano/Library of Congress

Americans had to get used to rationing of all sorts of food during World War II. Canned and processed food needed to be sent overseas for soldiers, while shipping fresh food was difficult because gasoline was limited and transporting soldiers and supplies took precedence.

In this photo, an unidentified woman packs oranges at a co-op packing plant in Redlands, California, in March 1943

Next: Americans learn to recycle.

23. America’s ‘Salvage Queen’

Scrap metal drive
Annette del Sur publicizing a salvage campaign in the yard of Douglas Aircraft Company | Alfred T. Palmer/Library of Congress

During the war, the government promoted scrap drives to collect metal, paper, rags, and rubber to use to make materials for the military. (People were even urged to save bacon fat, which could be used to make explosives.) These drives were a hugely popular way for everyday Americans to support the troops.

In the photo above, Annette del Sur, the “salvage queen” publicizes a salvage campaign in the yard of the Douglas Aircraft Company in Long Beach.

Next: Keeping up appearances

24. Even makeup routines got patriotic

woman applying lipstick
Woman putting on her lipstick | Library of Congress

Women might have been clocking in at the factory every day, but they were still expected to look suitably feminine and attractive. Maintaining a pretty face was supposed to be morale-boosting for men in uniform. Elizabeth Arden even released a lipstick shade for military women that would match their uniforms.

In this photo from 1943, a woman in Washington D.C. reapplies her lipstick in a park.

Next: Looking good on the job

 25. Checking electrical assemblies for an aircraft

checking electrical assemblies
An unidentified Vega Aircraft Corporation employee checks electrical assemblies, Burbank, California, June 1942. | David Bransby/Getty Images

This perfectly coiffed, unnamed woman clearly didn’t let her job at an aircraft plant interfere with her beauty routine. She’s shown checking electrical assemblies at Vega Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California, in June 1942. Lockheed, of which Vega was a subsidiary, produced 6% of all planes built in the U.S. between 1941 and 1945.

Next: The other side of the war

26. Japanese internment camps

japanese internment camp
Women at a Japanese internment camp in Tule Lake, California | Library of Congress

Not all Americans were invited to participate in the war effort. Instead, some were seen as potential threats. Shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government ordered that all people of Japanese ancestry be relocated to isolated internment camps. The government forced more than 100,000 people – many U.S. citizens – to leave their homes and live in makeshift camps, bringing with them only what they could carry. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the government finally apologized and offered compensation to surviving internees.

This photo shows a group of Japanese-American women at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in Newell, California.

Next: Women in uniform

27. WAVES, WASPs, and WACs

WAVES Poster
US Navy recruitment poster, for the ‘Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service’ (WAVES). | Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than 350,000 women joined the armed services during the war. Inspired by the British, the U.S. created women’s service branches such as the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC. Though they did not see combat, these women played a vital role in the war. Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, transported cargo and flew planes from factories to bases.

WAVES was the women’s branch of the naval reserve. This poster encouraged women to enlist.

Next: British women at war

28. Air Transport Auxiliary Pilots

Women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), circa 1943
Women pilots of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), circa 1943. | Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Like their American counterparts, British women were a vital part of their country’s war effort. This photo shows female pilots with the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) sometime around 1943. The ATA was a civilian force that took over certain duties from the Royal Air Force (like transporting aircraft between maintenance units and airfields) so that the RAF could focus on other duties.

Next: Life before the war  

29. Backstage at the fair

backstage at the fair
Girls practice backstage at the Vermont State Fair in 1941 | Jack Delano/Library of Congress

This photo offers a snapshot of what life looked like for some Americans before the war. Taken in September 1941, just a few months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, it shows female performers practicing backstage at the Vermont State Fair in Rutland.

Next: See a real Rosie today

30. Agnes Moore worked at a shipyard in California

Rosie the Riveter today
Agnes Moore | NPS Photo

A few Rosies are still with us today. This photo shows Agnes Moore. She worked as a welder at a Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California. She signed up after hearing a radio announcer say, “Women, do something for your country, go to the Richmond Shipyards and be a welder.” She worked the nightshift at the shipyard for three years. At age 97, in 2017, she was volunteering at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park

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