By Ginny McPartland
To anyone who knows Phyllis Gould, it’s no surprise that at age 92 she’s making news. As a woman who’s lived her life with fierce independence and fearlessness, her persistence in gaining recognition in the White House for female World War II defense workers is merely her latest exploit.
Gould is the organizer of a week-long trip to Washington, D.C., for a group of California “Rosie the Riveters,” beginning this Saturday.
The Rosie tour group, including Gould’s little sister Marian Sousa, 88, have been invited to meet Vice President Joe Biden in his office on Monday.
Phyllis’ dogged letter-writing campaign, conducted over the years of the Obama presidency, finally hit paydirt last month when Biden phoned her to extend a personal invitation to the nation’s capital city.
“They (Biden’s office) called me the day before to tell me when he would call. I picked up the phone and he said ‘Phyllis, this is Joe Biden, Vice President Biden.”
Biden continued: “I know you were hired in the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, Calif., as one of the first six women welders. That’s pretty impressive kid!”
Paving the way for today’s women
Thrilled by the Biden invitation, Gould is quick to explain the motivation of her quest. “This isn’t about personal glory. “I wanted this visit to bring attention to the fact that our generation had to struggle to earn the right to work in a man’s world,” she said. “Young women need to know this history and realize we paved the way for them. I think that knowledge has been lost.”
Gould, a farm girl from Eugene, Oregon, was one of the first women welders admitted to the Boilermakers Union in Richmond, Calif., and to be hired in the Kaiser shipyards in July 1942.
She first earned the status of journeyman (proficient) welder by passing a prescribed test in her first year in the shipyard. Later, she was one of only a few workers – male or female – who achieved U.S. Navy certification as a welder during World War II.[i]
A long life of adventures
In the 70 years since her defense industry stint, Phyllis Gould married a burner-turned-hairdresser, raised five children, worked as a government inspector in an ammunition factory and achieved success as an interior decorator.[ii]
She built her own cabin in rural Bolinas near the Sonoma Coast, where her daughters attended high school. Over the years, she has collected discarded bits of fabric and other materials to create clothing and countless pieces of folk art and paintings.
For a time in the 1970s, she immersed herself in Native American history and culture and wore her hair in two long braids with feather ties at the ends. She traveled to a Nebraska reservation where she participated in a private, tribe-members-only sun dance, and the next year went on a class field trip to visit Native American sites in Arizona.
In the late 1970s, she became friends with the rock group The Tubes through a mutual friend in San Francisco and has been to many of their shows and been invited back stage to hang out with the band. She also attended a Tubes recording session in Los Angeles.
She traveled on her own in her pickup truck/camper to all 50 states, including Alaska, where she worked for seven summers in the 1980s as a cook for the staff of Denali National Park.
Phyllis was one of the few West Coast shipyard workers whose story was told through an audio clip and photos at the D-Day Museum in New Orleans.
She’s been interviewed about her life as a Rosie many times over the past 10 years as the Rosie the Riveter national park and UC Berkeley staff have developed materials that document life in the shipyards.
Pre-World War II life
A look at Phyllis’ pre-World War II life shows how roles and opportunities for women in the 1930s and 1940s were limited.
A carefree 17-year-old who loved to go barefoot, Phyllis McKey Gould quit school in 1938 and shortly thereafter answered: “Sure!” when her boyfriend of three years asked quite casually: “Wanna get married tomorrow?”
The couple set up household in a tiny cottage, had a baby boy and she lived the traditional life of a 1930s housewife with her husband as breadwinner and the man of the house. She cooked, cleaned and took care of the baby while he worked in a sawmill.
They bought a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle by saving from his 37.5- cents-per-hour Depression-era wage. Today she recalls learning to drive the cycle but never mastering the skill.
The couple followed a friend to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1939 and when the U.S. entered the war in 1941, Phyllis was drawn inexorably to the seemingly wild and exciting idea of working as a welder in the shipyards.
The war changed everything
“Every Sunday we went for a Sunday drive. And this one Sunday, the guys in the front seat were talking about going to welding school and getting a job in the shipyards.
“And I piped up and said, “That’s what I want to do, too.” And I don’t think (her husband) believed me. He certainly didn’t approve of it.”
Her husband learned the craft, joined the union and become a shipyard welder. For Phyllis, the road to that well-paying job was a bit bumpier.
One day shortly after she finished welder training, she took the bus to the hiring hall in Oakland. “They said: ‘You have to join the Boilermakers Union.’ So I went to the union hall.
“It was a dark place and there was this big man dressed in dark clothes, and he just said, “No. We don’t take women or blacks.”
But Phyllis didn’t give up. She went back again the next day and was again told no. The third time she was again turned away but was surprised by a man who told her to go up to the window and apply again – and this time she was hired.
Later she learned that the Boilermakers had just adopted a new policy to accept women because workers of all kinds were sorely needed as the shipyards ramped up production in mid-1942.
When she made journeyman less than a year later, her husband wasn’t happy. “Here’s this proud man who expected to be the head of his household, take care of his family, and here I am. I’m doing the same work he’s doing and I’m getting the same pay for it.”
Phyllis looks back on her failed marriage without regret: “If the war had not come along and I hadn’t gone to work I would have stayed with him, not knowing any better. And been kind of a pale shadow of what I became.”
Asserting her independence in the years following her shipyard experience, today Phyllis finds herself as someone who doesn’t shrink from dogging the White House until her message is heard.
By Ginny McPartland
This Saturday, October 13, Kaiser Permanente will celebrate its beginnings as the workers’ medical care plan in the World War II Kaiser West Coast Shipyards. We’ll gather with thousands of Bay Area residents, many living in Richmond, to reminisce about the days when Richmond hosted Henry J. Kaiser’s monumental shipbuilding operation.
The small waterfront city was transformed during the war by the arrival of thousands of people from around the country who came to work in the shipyards. Transplanted workers from the South, the Mid-West and the Northeast brought their faith, their lifestyles, and their music and art to the Bay Area. Their contributions changed the demographics and cultural landscape remarkably.
The sixth annual Richmond Home Front Festival by the Bay showcases the rich culture of Bay Area life that is largely the legacy of World War II. The festival takes place at several sites on and near the former Kaiser Shipyards. The main events will be in the Craneway Pavilion, the former Ford Assembly Plant and wartime tank and jeep depot at the south end of Harbour Way (1414 South Harbour Way).
New Rosie park visitors center open
New this year is the amazing and beautiful National Park Service Visitors Education Center, which has historical exhibits and films that tell the story of Richmond and the home front. The center, operated by the Rosie the Riveter national park staff, is the renovated and remodeled brick oil house where the fuel to power the nearby vehicle assembly plant was stored. Tours of the center are free.
Also new this year is a chance to take a free tour of the USS Potomac, the rescued and restored presidential yacht of wartime President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). The yacht, model AG-25, served as the U.S. Coast Guard Electra until 1936 when Roosevelt claimed it as his “Floating White House.” The yacht is permanently docked at Jack London Square in Oakland, California. Festival-goers can take a free 1940s shuttle bus ride from the Craneway to the dock of the former Shipyard 3, which is off Canal Boulevard, to see the Potomac.
The SS Red Oak Victory, operated by the Richmond Museum of History and also docked at Shipyard 3, will be open for tours. The Red Oak, one of the ships built in Kaiser’s Richmond Shipyards, has been restored by the museum and is often the site of film showings and other events. World War II memorabilia and books are available for purchase in the museum gift shop.
USO dance Friday night
The night before the festival, Friday, October 12, Lena Horne will be honored in a 1940s USO dance featuring Junius Courtney’s Big Band. The dance will be from 7 to 10 p.m. in the Craneway Pavilion, 1414 South Harbour Way, Richmond. Admission is $20 per person in advance, $25 at the door. Advance tickets available until 5 p.m. Thursday.
Other festival events include: Duck (Amphibious Truck) Tours of Marina Bay to view the historic shipyards, the YMCA Home Front 5K & 10K Fun Run beginning at 9 a.m., kids rides, music, a karaoke stage, and lots of food and beverages to purchase. The festival begins at 11 a.m. and closes at 5 p.m.
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KP will celebrate Richmond again at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 16, when we dedicate our addition to Macdonald Avenue art and cultural displays. KP Richmond Medical Center has created an outdoor public art display that features shipyard workers of World War II and honors today’s Richmond citizens. The art installation is on Macdonald Avenue at Eighth Street.
By Ginny McPartland
The stomp of little feet can again be heard in the halls of the former Maritime Child Development Center in the World War II Home Front city of Richmond, California. After a $9 million restoration project, the hammers have stopped and the children again populate the school whose walls housed a progressive child care program for the pint-sized offspring of Kaiser Shipyard workers.
A neighborhood charter school program designed to radically improve educational success of low-income minority kids opened a new site this month in the renovated Maritime structure. Richmond College Prep Schools, chartered for kindergarten through Grade 6, welcomed two classes of first graders and two classes of kindergarteners on August 11.
The two-story, 1943-built school is located at Florida Street and Harbour Way, a short distance from the former shipyard sites. Richmond College Prep Schools serve families in the Santa Fe and Coronado neighborhoods in the Iron Triangle, an area including Central Richmond known for its high rate of crime.
As a joint venture among Richmond Community Foundation, the Rosie the Riveter national park, and the fundraising Rosie the Riveter Trust, the center also features a museum memorializing the original character of the center. The National Park Service staff has gathered and preserved child-sized tables and chairs, art easels, wooden toys and other artifacts from the World War II Richmond child care centers to re-create an authentic classroom environment.
The interpretive exhibits honor the female shipyard worker – the iconic Rosie the Riveter – and her male counterparts whose efforts contributed vastly to the war effort. The exhibits will also address California’s role in World War II and its impact on civil rights, health care, child care and labor. The park service will offer public tours of the museum beginning this fall.
Renovation project not that smooth
The $9 million restoration of the historic Maritime Child Development Center was funded with federal grants and donations through the Rosie the Riveter Trust and with contributions from the city of Richmond and the West Contra Costa County school district. Rehabilitation, including the use of green techniques to preserve the building’s historic designation, began in the spring of 2010 and was expected to be completed in the spring of 2011.
Unfortunately, the almost 70-year-old building offered unexpected problems. The 17,000-square-foot center was described in 2004 as: “Threatened and endangered, vacant and abandoned, with water damage, not seismically safe, with mold, asbestos and lead-based paint to remove, and not compliant with the American with Disabilities Act.” Add to these problems rain delays and utilities issues and it is no wonder the completion was delayed.
Child development center a historic treasure
At stake was one of the first federally built child service centers to be funded by the U.S. Maritime Commission. The center was established at the behest of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser who ran the four Richmond Shipyards. The workers in Kaiser’s West Coast shipyards in Richmond, California, and Portland, Oregon, set records for building war ships faster than any other yards. Richmond workers completed 747 Liberty and Victory ships during the wartime emergency.
To keep up the pace, Kaiser needed every worker he could get, including women and men of all ages and abilities. For the first time in history, women were performing industrial jobs formerly only done by men. That meant someone needed to take care of the children of the workers, many who had migrated away from their extended families in other regions of the U.S.
Henry Kaiser was not happy with mediocre care for the children. So he hired child care experts from UC Berkeley and elsewhere to develop an educational program and nurturing care program, including medical care, for the children. He funded the centers with federal Lanham Act money allocated for community services for war industry boom towns, such as Richmond, which had grown from a sleepy town of 23,000 people to more than 100,000.
The centers were designed with the advice of Catherine Landreth, a child development expert at UC Berkeley. Landreth recommended indoor and outdoor space for children to get plenty of fresh air and exercise. Music and art were incorporated into the educational program. Children who attended preschool at the Kaiser centers enjoyed warm meals, warm beds and plenty of attention throughout the day. Parents could leave their children while they worked any shift at the shipyards, and hot meals could be purchased at the center and taken home for the family.
Maritime center stayed open for six decades
When the war ended in 1945, federal funds were withdrawn for child care, and most centers across the country closed. In Richmond, however, the parents pleaded with the school district to keep the about 30 Richmond centers open. In the end, the state of California and the local school district funded the centers for many years after the war. The Maritime center and the Ruth Powers Child Development Center nearby on Cutting Boulevard are the only two remaining World War II child care facilities in Richmond. They continued to operate until 2004 with funding from the state of California Department of Education.
Richmond College Prep Schools, run by a private corporation called Richmond Elementary Schools, Inc., continues the tradition of progressive early childhood education at the site. “(Our) educational philosophy is centered on preparing students, beginning at four years of age, to succeed academically and emotionally in a college educational environment. This philosophy requires nurturing the expectations of academic success in families as well as students,” according to the school’s web site.
The Maritime center renovation is part of the Nystrom Urban Re Vitalization Effort (NURVE) that includes the Nystrom School modernization and a new athletic field for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. Both projects are around the corner from the Maritime building on Harbour Way.