By Chris Treadway
The Oakland Tribune.
Since their return from meeting the president and vice president in Washington, D.C. in April, the six women who once worked at the World War II Kaiser shipyards have been busier than ever, with invitations for speaking engagements and parade appearances, in addition to the dozens of people who come to see them on Fridays at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park visitors center.
Now, the woman who spearheaded the visit has embarked on another effort centered in the nation’s capital: Convincing Congress to establish a national Rosie the Riveter Day to honor the women who filled the ranks of labor during the war, blazing the trail for the women who would enter the work force in the years to come.
Phyllis Gould, 92, a journeyman welder at the Richmond shipyards from 1942-45, initiated the Washington, D.C. visit with a relentless letter-writing campaign of more than a decade that finally caught the eye of Vice President Joe Biden last October.
As a member of the “We can do it” generation, Gould wasn’t content to let things stop there. The Fairfax resident has been writing to her congressman, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, about establishing Rosie the Riveter Day.
Huffman, already familiar with the accomplishments of the Rosies, and Gould in particular, listened and said from his office in Washington, D.C. last week that he plans to propose just such a day when Congress reconvenes in October.
“The status is, as it is with World War II veterans, that there is an urgency to recognize the contributions of the ‘Greatest Generation’ while they are still alive, and the Rosie the Riveters are part of that,” he said.
“Phyllis has been a dynamo,” Huffman said. “You can see why, with Phyllis and people like (her) across the country, that we won the war.”
Huffman noted that there are a number of women in the Bay Area still around who worked not only at the Richmond yards but also at the Marin County shipyards in his own district that built wartime cargo and tanker ships in Sausalito.
“I just think this is an important time to pay tribute to the women who not only kept the home fires burning but kept democracy running,” he said. “It was the first time our country had seen women fully deployed in the work force, and it forced us to look at child care and health care in a new way.”
The date being considered for celebrating is Oct. 29, which would also be the anniversary of the legislation that authorized creation of the Rosie the Riveter park.
As for whether he thinks the proposal will pass muster in Congress, Huffman said, “You might be surprised around here. It should, but you can’t take Congress for granted.”
Gould, however, has no doubts, saying, “It’ll happen.”
Since their trip to Washington, D.C. and national television appearance on “Good Morning America,” the Richmond Rosies have enjoyed increased popularity with the public and politicians alike.
“The Rosies were a huge hit (in Washington, D.C.),” Huffman said. “All the members of Congress wanted to meet them. The Rosies have big-time celebrity status. When Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi held a conference on working families, Phyllis and the other Rosies were there.”
Appearances have included the July 4 parade in Concord, where they were honored for “Most Patriotic” entry, and a labor conference in San Francisco.
Gould and her 88-year-old sister Marian Sousa of El Sobrante, a former shipyard draftsman, were in a photo shoot with Richmond council candidate Donna Powers, as well as a parade in Fairfax.
“It’s amazing how busy we’ve all been,” Gould said. “I’ve got three speaking engagements coming up. When they ask if I can come, I look at my little calendar and say, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.'”
They are also a hit at the national park visitors center in Richmond.
“We had two groups of more than 40 the last two weeks,” said Marian Wynn, 88, of Fairfield, a former pipe welder at the Richmond yards.
But one of the most special moments since their return came on July 24, when Gould, her sister Sousa, Wynn, Priscilla Elder (a 94-year-old Pinole resident and former shipyard electrician), and Kay Morrison of Fairfield (a former welder, now 90) spent a day with Danville resident Kim Gabrelcik, a captain for Virgin America who was the pilot for their trip to Washington.
Virgin America donated the flight — and red carpet treatment that included dancers, a buffet breakfast and champagne — along with a flight crew of Gabrelcik and first officer Denise Beringer in the cockpit.
“I was specifically asked to come in and fly their trip,” Gabrelcik said. “I think they thought it would be nice to have an all-female flight crew.”
The VIP guests got to sit in the cockpit and meet the flight crew, but “we didn’t have time to sit and talk one-on-one,” said Gabrelcik, who wanted to spend some time with the Rosies and finally got the chance to come to Richmond for lunch and a tour of the visitors center.
“We have been trying to get together since they went to Washington, so this is great,” she said. “They were so instrumental in changing the path for women.”
Gabrelcik said she appreciates that her 25-year career as an airline pilot was paved by the women who broke traditional all-male labor barriers 70 years earlier.
She recalled that she put herself through flight school in Big Bend, Ore., by working at a firm called Rocket Research.
“I would be working on the assembly line in coveralls, and I used to say, ‘I’m Rosie the Riveter’ kind of flippantly,” Gabrelcik said. “I think it’s so great I finally got to meet the real-life Rosies.”