When World War II came, millions of women joined the fight – not on the front lines but doing the vital work of building weapons to defeat the Axis powers. Georgie Bright Kunkel was one of them.
“It was a life-changing event,” she told KUOW’s Jeannie Yandel about the experiences that American women had by the time the war formally ended Sept. 2, 1945.
Kunkel worked at a Boeing bomber plant in Chehalis -- one of more than 300,000 women who worked as "Rosie the Riveters" building aircraft.
“I met so many young people, women, who had never left their homes in Iowa or somewhere,” said Kunkel, now 95 and living in Seattle.
“I know it was war, but the side effects were pretty neat for women … that they could get out of the houses and do things that they never did before. And they were considered people instead of just the wife of somebody.”
It wasn't easy. In Chehalis, she worked at a plant that made wing panels for B-17 bombers, often alongside older men who couldn’t go into battle. One day, the boss came in to complain about crooked lines of drilled holes. The workers didn’t have guides to use, Kunkel said.
“We had to eyeball it. So he came over and had me drill first. And mine were perfect.”
So why did the boss go to her first? She shrugged it off.
“That was common,” she said.
When war came, she had just met the man she would marry when the fighting was done. She already had a career as a teacher but worked four summers at various plants during the war.
“The men considered the women were working ‘until’ -- until the war was over,” she said. “Some men accepted it pretty well, but some men resented women coming and taking ‘men’s jobs.’”
How did the war experience affect her life?
“Chehalis was pretty isolated. That opened our town up, and our lives up to a lot of different kinds of people. And it gave us a broader perspective on life,” she said.
She knew she wasn’t going to stay in Chehalis.
Her fiancé, Norman Kunkel, came home from the war. They eventually married and moved to Seattle. She traveled the state pushing for women’s rights in the 1960s. She got her master's degree at the UW – while raising four children with her husband. Later in life, she has sung at Carnegie Hall and recently began doing standup comedy.
And she has collected women’s war stories.
“All of these women were unique and independent,” she said. “They weren’t afraid of anything and they were entrepreneurial. They had the spirit. And they’re still going, some of them.”
She’s urging them to write down or record details of their experiences.
Otherwise, she fears, “Their stories are going to be lost.”