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Rita the Riveter

Rita the Riveter didn't fool around, there was a war on!

by Charles Walsh cwalsh@ctpost.com

Rita The Riveter gets her back up a bit when she's asked if the stories are true about all the, well, fooling around that went on in World War II weapons factories like the Vought-Sikorsky Corsair plant in Bridgeport, where she once worked. Honey, the feisty 86-year-old former Bridgeporter spurts over the phone from St. Louis, Mo., her home for the past four years, the guys were glad to have us. We worked as a team. We were proud to be building a fighter plane that would shorten the war. We even got an E' from the government for our excellent work. People today aren't proud of anything.

Come on, Rita: You mean with all those lonely ladies whose husbands were away in the military, there wasn't a little?

Listen, lovey, says Rita ( lovey and honey are Rita's favorite terms of endearment), we worked 10-hour days. When it was over we were very tired. We went home, had supper and went to sleep.

Rita worked at the plant from late 1941 to 1945, and her job actually did involve riveting. She and another woman attached the trailing edges on the Corsair's wings.

Not that there weren't a few gender stresses in the plant.

Rita remembers well the Great Sweater Strike, when women in two of the plant's divisions, 75 women in all, walked out in protest of management's ban on their wearing sweaters on the job.

While safety was the ostensible reason for the ban, one contemporary news account quoted management as saying, The girls come here to work, not to be attractive to men.

The news report continued, The implication was, of course, that there was much whistling and wheeling when a sweater girl hove into view; male bench-hands were filing off their own fingers and welding the own vests to the work.

The women said they wanted to wear sweaters not to show off their shapes, but for warmth in the chilly plant the uniform jackets they were supposed to wear were too bulky. The women also pointed out that management apparently saw no safety problems with male workers wearing sweaters.

Rita says she thinks, in truth, that the reason the women wanted to wear sweaters was a girly thing.

The walkout lasted for 10 days. The woman finally went back after reaching some sort of dress compromise.

Rita was 24 when she went to work at the Corsair plant. She'd already had three children and had been working the night shift at a Bridgeport factory she describes as a sweatshop. She was grateful to get the Vought-Sikorsky job.

Coming out of the Depression, the [Corsair] money was important. (She can't recall what the rate was).

Working on the Corsair changed my life, Rita says. Her work as a union steward made her sensitive to the problems of working people and the poor.

It brought out the latent Girl Scout in me, she says. After that I just wanted to do things to help people.

During the 1967 riots in New Haven ghettos, Rita worked for the Hispanic Center there. She saw the turmoil and violence close up. I learned that poor people need help. Bad things happen when you let things slide. You've got to pay attention.

As might be expected, Rita is none too thrilled with the current U.S. leadership.

Bush scares me, she says. We don't have the leaders today we had back then.

In St. Louis, Rita lives with one of her four daughters. She spends a lot of time keeping up with her 15 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

In February a legislative committee endorsed a bill by Stratford Sen. George Doc Gunther to make the Corsair Connecticut's official state aircraft. Rita, who has a load of memorabilia from her days on the line, thinks it's a great idea.

Charles Walsh's column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday. You can reach him by phone at 330-6217 or bye-mail at cwalsh@ctpost.com.

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Last modified: September 18, 2012

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