Juggling Act: Who was Rosie the Riveter? New children's book shares Rosie's 'Herstory'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News
"Rosie: A Detroit Herstory" (Wayne State Press), written by Bailey Sisoy Isgro and illustrated by Nicole Lapointe.  Isgro and Lapointe will celebrate with a book launch party Saturday in Highland Park.

Bailey Sisoy Isgro is a connoisseur of facts. As the owner of Detroit History Tours, she has led hundreds of groups all over the city since 2015, sharing its unique past and quirky stories. 

Still, she runs into a common misconception when it comes to Rosie the Riveter, the woman with flexed muscles who went off to work during World War II to support the war effort. Contrary to popular belief, Rosie was not one person.

"She’s an archetype for hundreds of thousands of women who went into the war effort, taking jobs that were previously held by men," said Isgro.

Now, Isgro and local illustrator Nicole Lapointe have written a book that tells the true story of how thousands of Rosie the Riveters came to be, especially in Detroit.

Published in August, “Rosie, A Detroit Herstory” (Wayne State University Press, $16.99) tells the story of the critical role these women played in the war, stepping onto factory floors to build planes, make ammunition and in many ways pave the way for working women today..

Isgro, who by day works for General Motors in their design studio, thanks these Rosies for her own job. So does LaPointe, who teaches at Detroit's College for Creative Studies.

"We stand on these women’s shoulders," said Isgro. "And it’s a really good time to remember that."

Indeed. As a record number of women run for political office this year, it reflects just how far we've come in the last century. Before Rosie the Riveter, the reality is most women didn't work outside the home (let alone run for political office).

But when the nation needed them -- and in turn, the world -- they stepped up.

Before Rosie, "the idea of (a woman) working on an assembly line was really quite radical," said Isgro.

During both world wars, while most of the men fought in Europe, women “manned” the munitions factories and converted auto plants, producing fighting equipment. By October of 1943, there were 140,000 women in the defense industry. Willow Run in Ypsilanti hired 117 in one week.

According to the Yankee Air Museum, an estimated 65,000 women went into the war industry in Michigan during both world wars. Willow Run Bomber Plant hired 117 in one week alone, according to Detroit News archives. Nationwide, an estimated 1 million to 2.5 million women went to work, says Isgro.

So who were these Rosies? Contrary to common perception based on the now famous 1943 war poster, a Rosie was likely older than you may think -- Isgro says the average age was 36 -- and she wasn't necessarily Caucasian. Isgro says 21 percent of Rosies were African American and 6 percent were Asian.

"There were older women, Hispanic women, Asian American women," said Isgro. 

That diversity is reflected in "Rosie: A Detroit Herstory." 

“We wanted to make sure that as many people who were living in the city at the time were represented in the book,” said Lapointe.

Isgro and LaPointe originally set out to create a historical coloring book about Detroit, which was LaPointe’s idea. But as Isgro started writing – way too many words for a coloring book – their idea evolved. At the same time, the Women’s March was happening in early 2017.

“I said ‘This isn’t a coloring book, it’s a children’s book,’” remembers Lapointe.

Anne Martin, Wayne State University Press’s editor in chief, says publishing “Rosie, A Herstory” was a no-brainer.

“Bailey and Nicole have created a brilliant and accessible book that allows children of today to see women and girls of all backgrounds represented in the history of this country, World War II, and Detroit,” she said in an email. “‘Rosie’ doesn’t sugarcoat the historical facts of the day and it doesn’t shy away from the complexity of war.”

Still, Isgro admits she questioned herself along the way. The writing push her outside her comfort zone. Even her mom, who she calls one of her biggest supporters, laughed when she first heard the idea. She and Lapointe forged ahead anyhow.

"I loved books like this as a kid and could never get enough of them," Isgro said. "It became really fun."

The 46-page book is written in rhyming prose and features Lapointe’s bright, fun illustrations. It also includes a glossary to help young readers understand some fairly big words along with real life images of Rosies at work.

And even though it's targeted at eight to 12-year-olds, Isgro says their biggest fans of the book have been grandmothers buying it for their grandchildren and even younger readers.

"Overwhelmingly I can’t tell you how many grandmas have bought the book – either them or their mothers were the Rosies," said Isgro.

And for a change, their book features women as the main characters, a rarity in children's books.

"Only 10 percent of children’s book have a female main character," said Isgro. "And that’s just not OK. We need more female main characters for boys and girls. I think the timing is long overdue."

Isgro and Lapointe will celebrate the book with a book launch party from 2-5 p.m. Saturday at the Red Hots Coney Island (founded in 1921) in Highland Park. There will be three original Rosies on hand, the Willow Run Rosie the Riveter Drill team, postcards for kids to fill out that will be sent to other Rosies and veterans and more.

"Kids love super heroes," said Isgro. There have been real super heroes after different times in history. The women who were the Rosies were actual super heroes."