Thursday, January 14, 2016

Rosie the Riveter and John Muir

This post is part of my ongoing series on National Parks and Monuments.

This past fall, we took a trip to the San Francisco area, and visited these two relatively obscure sites. Both preserve history, and in both cases, this history was a turning point in a significant battle for justice.

Rosie The Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park

As the docents love to inform visitors, this place has the longest name in the entire National Park Service, and yet has the smallest area, in one sense. The park does not own any land, rather utilizing a combination of property belonging to the City of Richmond, and property leased from private holders. In addition, it is spread over several sites on the Richmond waterfront.

The official website is here, and has additional information. 

My Rosie Girls

Even before the United States officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it as unofficially participating in the war by supplying Great Britain through the Lend-Lease program. After Pearl Harbor, however, it became necessary to ramp up a huge program of production to supply the needs of the war.

Many able-bodied men either volunteered or were drafted, creating a vacuum. Where would the factories get laborers? How would ships and airplanes and tanks and jeeps get built?

In the case of the Richmond shipyards, there were two significant new sources of labor. The first gave the name to this park. Women enlisted in great numbers. The second is often overlooked. Minorities - particularly African Americans - saw the opportunity to leave low paying service industry jobs and better their quality of life.

In both cases, the new workers faced significant obstacles. For example, the local unions simply would not admit women or minorities. White males only. Realistically, it was only due to the extreme need for workers that the gender and color barriers came down.

One of the best things about this park are the videos. The NPS took the time to interview numerous workers, back when there were many still alive, and learn the individual stories. It was moving to hear the tales of poverty, and lack of housing (nothing like absorbing tens of thousands of new workers in a few weeks), and the ongoing harassment, racism, and sexism that many endured, particularly when they first started working.

There are two things that particularly stuck with me, and I think these are both important to our understanding of the fight for justice then and now.

The first is this: given the opportunity to do “man’s work,” women proved entirely capable. And likewise, minority workers proved that they could do as meticulous work as any white man. Even now, we keep hearing (particularly in certain circles) that whites and/or men are just better at things, from education (hello, Justice Scalia), to engineering and technology. This has always been the preferred approach by those who wish to remain in a bubble and believe that racism and sexism are myths, or at least not real anymore.

The second is related. Often, we tend to think of the Civil Rights Movement and Second Wave Feminism as originating in the 1960s. For those of us who absorbed some poison from Christian Fundamentalism [link], we were told that both movements were morally wrong (if for no other reason than that government shouldn’t tell people not to do racist things) and that they arose from the decline of “true” religion in the 60s.

The truth is quite different, as the stories of the workers in the Richmond shipyards made clear. While the men were away fighting in Europe and the Pacific, women were able to taste financial and social freedom in a way that they had not. As one woman said, no matter how good your marriage is, there is no substitute for having one’s own bank account and income, that you and you alone can manage and spend. To go from a variety of well-paying and fairly prestigious manufacturing jobs back to either domestic work at home or a short list of “women’s” professions (teaching and nursing and maid service, mostly) was no longer acceptable. Thus, Second Wave Feminism’s focus on breaking down employment barriers.

I want to mention something else in this regard. It isn’t as if women neglected the home either. Somebody had to take care of the children, and indeed this happened. Some of the older relatives stepped in, cooperative day-cares were formed at the factories, and schools adapted as well. Likewise, having their own bank accounts didn’t mean an endless spree at Macy’s, but the ability and responsibility to manage the household and its funds. In other words, women didn’t use their freedom to be irresponsible.

But they did realize that they were every bit as capable as men at being in charge, and weren’t happy to be told to go be the little woman and let the big man do the thinking and managing of the purse. So, in a very real sense, it wasn’t the “immoral 60s” that gave rise to Second Wave Feminism. It was World War II, and the opportunities that women tasted.

Likewise, the Civil Rights Movement was birthed in World War II. Although full integration of the armed forces wouldn’t come until later, there still were more opportunities for whites to experience African Americans as equals, rather than lessers.

It was the factory experience, however, which was to prove more influential. Prior to the war, opportunities for African Americans were dismal. They were expected to serve in low-paying service industry jobs. Waiter, maid, sharecropper, busboy, gardener, and so on. The better compensated manufacturing jobs were off limits - in many cases by force of the Jim Crow laws.

Just like women, who refused to go quietly back to a subservient status, African Americans tasted better opportunity, and refused to settle for low-paying service jobs, segregation, and humiliation. It is no coincidence that Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and the others of the Civil Rights Movement would rise not long after the end of the war. The genie was out of the bottle, and change had to come.

We were not able to participate in one particular facet of the park, which is too bad. Alas, the waiting list is six months long. Betty Reid Soskin is the oldest National Park Ranger at 93. She worked in the shipyards, and was one of the rangers who brought the Rosie The Riveter park into being. Her talks are so popular that one literally must sign up far in advance to have any hope. NPR did a bit on her a few years back, which you can read here.

"What gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering."

This is so very true, and why it is important to have more than one dominant viewpoint. We need a full spectrum of stories, or we fail to remember.

John Muir National Historic Site

John Muir’s footprints are (literally and figuratively) all over my home state of California, and throughout the majestic Sierra Nevada mountains in particular. Without his efforts, it is entirely possible that Yosemite would be a resort for the wealthy (assuming the mining companies didn’t destroy it), the giant sequoias would have been logged to near extinction, and the conservationist movement would have come a couple of generations too late. It is not an exaggeration to say that the world was changed when Theodore Roosevelt took his legendary hiking and camping trip through Yosemite with Muir. More than anything else, this tipped the balance of power away from corporate mining and logging and toward the fledgling environmental protection movement.

Muir believed that conservation was a matter, not just of personal preference, but of actual justice. As I have grown older, and spent more time hiking and exploring the wilderness of the western United States, I have come to agree with him more and more.

On the one hand, there is the emotional connection. The thought of the basalt columns of Devil’s Postpile National Monument [link] being blasted to build a dam for mining makes my blood boil. (I wrote about that here.) A corporation would have profited for a few years, making a few people rich. Or not, given the high failure rate of mines. Some pretty metal would have been gained, but a natural wonder tens of thousands of years old would have disappeared forever.

This leads to the real reason that conservationism is indeed a justice issue. In any human endeavor, there are costs and benefits. In some cases, the costs and benefits are borne directly. For example, I bear the expenses of my law practice, and gain income from it.

But there are also external costs and benefits. I could argue that by increasing access to justice, I am benefiting even those who do not access my services. On the other hand, I require the killing of a number of trees (lawyers are terrible about this), so the environment suffers as a result. These are the external costs and benefits which are borne, not by me, but by all of humanity.

It is the externalized costs of an endeavor which are the focus of conservationism. A factory owner may pay his or her own costs for the actual physical plant, labor, and materials. But if the factory pollutes the air or water, those costs are not borne just by him, but by everyone who breathes the air or drinks the water. And, if he causes a tree to become extinct because he uses all of its species - even if he “pays” for them by buying them from the landowner, he has cost future generations the chance to benefit from that species.

Needless to say, the problem with external costs is that they are easily ignored in favor of profits. The business (or individual) gains little or nothing from minimizing external costs, and often would incur a significant cost to reduce those externals.

Hence the need for a way of ensuring justice when it comes to external costs. This is my main quibble with the Libertarian mindset, is that unregulated markets lack any means of controlling external costs, so those with the most to gain from despoilation pretty much get free run.

So, in my opinion, Muir was right that conservation is indeed a matter of justice. It protects the rights of those who bear the external costs of industry, and the rights of future generations, against those who would wish to personally profit at the expense of those others.

Admittedly, in some cases this can be a very complex calculation. People need to eat, for example, and land used for agriculture isn’t left untouched. The point is that conservationism and regulation serve to return the external costs back to one(s) reaping the benefits, whether those who profit directly, or those who consume.

Anyway, Muir eventually settled down and got married, and raised a couple of daughters. He bought a place near what is now Martinez, California, east of the Bay. When his in-laws died, his wife inherited the house and property nearby, which the Muirs then moved to. The current park contains these lands and the old mansion.

We spent a day there, hiked the hills named for Muir’s daughters, and explored the house. It was fun to see the old photos of the Muir girls, who seemed to inherit their father’s outdoor preferences. Not nearly as staid as one might have thought from the outfits - but quite a bit like my own vigorous girls.

This picture, though, is one that says so much. The sequoia tree (on the left) was planted by Muir himself about 100 years ago. Perhaps 2000 years from now, it will be as big as the giants in the Sierras.

But whatever the fate of the tree, Muir’s legacy lives on in the National Park system, which is dedicated to Muir’s passion for preserving the natural wonders of the world so that all of us, present and future, can share them.


  1. "Some pretty metal would have been gained, but a natural wonder tens of thousands of years old would have disappeared forever."

    This always makes me wonder what the eastern US would look like in terms of national parks if it hadn't already been used up for resources by the time conservationism came along. There are some national parks east of the Mississippi but not many. (Though there are lots of historic sites that are in the NPS system.) I'm sure there were plenty of natural wonders in, say, New England (which I always think of first because I live here) that were simply gone by the Civil War if not earlier.

    Speaking of New England, I'm still reading it but I'm pretty sure I will have a book recommendation for you soon. It's about court cases in the New Haven Colony in the early 17th century. So many religious, gender and legal issues all rolled into one, plus it's not real long. I'll let you know when I'm done.

    1. I too have wondered that. I've been to Smokey Mountain National Park (as a teen, during a Gothard conference, ironically), and thought it was a beautiful place. (Also, the most visited National Park, believe it or not.) A law school classmate hikes a bit of the Appalachian Trail each year, so there is still some wilderness there. But so much of it was developed before it could be preserved.

      New England is an interesting question, as it was probably the earliest to be clear cut for farming. It's a total contrast to the West, where even a populous state like California is 43.5% federally owned land.

    2. Yeah, I wish I could remember the details of this, but I heard someone during a history lecture say something to the effect that at a certain point in time, you could travel from Maine to Philadelphia without seeing a single tree. Which is just downright disturbing, given how many are here now that it's no longer farmland and been allowed to reforest.

      That being said, it is kind of amazing how many different species of animals are left even with the habitat being so degraded for so long. Sometimes you have to know where to look for them, but they're here. And then sometimes they find you, like when a black bear tears down your birdfeeder and drags it into the woods…

  2. Armstrong Woods is utterly lovely. Worth time.

    1. It has been years since I was there, but I thought Armstrong Woods was beautiful. When I was a kid, we camped at Richardson Grove one year. I am planning to camp with the kids this summer up at Prairie Creek. My youngest wasn't born when we were last up in the redwoods.

  3. Great post. I quite enjoyed reading about the birth of the feminists and civil rights movements. It is also a shame that presidents like Roosevelt don't come along all that often.

    1. Credit where it is due, I suppose. President Clinton preserved the incredible landscape of Grand Staircase Escalante, and Obama has added some important sites to the National Park System. You can't beat TR, though, when it comes to an idea that changed the world, quite literally.