- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

With her red kerchief smartly framing a face fixed with a determined gaze, and her blue work shirt rolled up to display a proudly flexed arm, Rosie the Riveter has been an American icon since her debut as the poster girl for the American home front during World War II. Rosie symbolized the can-do spirit of the female cohort of Americans lately valorized as the "greatest generation." After the nation's men set off to wage war, the country called on its women to "do the job he left behind." They did donning trousers and setting off to work in factories, offices and shipyards. When the war ended, most of these women happily left their jobs and returned home, where they became mothers of the baby boom generation.

If, as President Bush said in his speech to a joint session of Congress, the country is again facing a sustained war effort, what is women's home front role today? At a time when women are half of the work force (compared to 28 percent in 1941), what is a 21st century Rosie the Riveter to do? This question is especially pertinent for young women. Heiresses of feminism, they have grown up assuming they can be doctors, lawyers or politicians. If the country revives the draft, these women won't be replacing men on the job. They already work beside them and, in many cases, employ them.

So what kind of home front protectors might this generation prove to be? One hopes that the group's most visible representatives are not an accurate barometer. These are the women who pen navel-gazing memoirs about their drug use and publish catalogues of complaint about the difficulties of their privileged lives. The young female authors of the recently released "Quarterlife Crisis: The Unique Challenges of Life in Your Twenties," for example, appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show earlier this year to inform the viewing public that twenty-somethings are "overwhelmed" by the range of choices they have and are "more aware than other generations of the consequences of not following their passions." Rosie O'Donnell has replaced Rosie the Riveter.

This generation's sense of entitlement is different from that of their parents, more closely linked to popular culture than politics and imbued with copious amounts of ironic detachment a combination not necessarily harmful in times of peace and prosperity, but potentially challenging during a sustained war effort.

If the reaction on college campuses to Mr. Bush's call for a war against terrorism is any guide, feelings of ambivalence and skepticism outweigh unabashed expressions of patriotism and self-sacrifice. Recently, nearly 2,000 students rallied against war on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley (a smaller rally in support of Mr. Bush and the armed forces was staged later) and a student at DePaul University in Chicago told The Washington Post that "I want something to be done, but I don't want to be the one doing it." Young men and women might thrill to the politically correct sight of female soldiers deploying to dangerous parts of the world, but they do so from the comfort of their couches. It is worth recalling that this generation's only experience of armed conflict, the Persian Gulf War, was also vicarious, and thus they have trouble imagining how any war will affect them directly. Their image of patriotism and military service has also been informed by a strain of anti-American, anti-military sentiment that has pervaded the college campuses where they matriculate.

To be sure, the home front of a 21st century war on terrorism will require roles for women unimagined in the 1940s. Young women's experience is more likely to resemble that of Shelly Lazarus than Rosie the Riveter. Miss Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Oglivy & Mather Worldwide, recently told Fortune magazine that she got her first grip on the rungs of the corporate ladder when, as an intern at General Foods during the Vietnam War, two of her male superiors joined the reserves, clearing the way for her to take on new responsibilities in the corporation. Today's patriotic service could be tomorrow's resume-builder.

But if young women recognize the image of Rosie the Riveter, they have not learned what she represented for her generation, and the lesson she could teach ours. The final stanza of the 1942 song, "Rosie the Riveter," by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, provides a clue: "Rosie's got a boyfriend, Charlie. Charlie, he's a Marine. Rosie is protecting Charlie, working overtime on the riveting machine. When they gave her a production 'E,' she was as proud as she could be. There's something true about, red, white, and blue about, Rosie the Riveter." The song (which feminists likely would impugn for having been penned by two men) evokes a woman committed to her country and her man, capable and independent yet embedded in a culture that recognized women's varied and important roles.

In a postmodern, postfeminist, politically correct world, the modern Rosie has no need of Charlies. She has choices. Let's hope she also proves to have the character and willingness to sacrifice that her grandmother's generation demonstrated.

Christine Stolba is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum.

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