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Local Knowledge

Generations Now and Then

For those of us who measure time in terms of when we’re next going boating, we’re also prone to relating just about anything to the boating experience.

Sometimes the connection to boating comes in the least expected time and place. Such a “mind-meld” occurred while touring the D-Day Memorial Museum in New Orleans. Opened in 2000, this museum takes you on a compelling trip through the events leading up to World War II, the Normandy Invasion itself and the war’s tragic aftermath. It’s truly a multi-media experience with film clips, voice overs, animated graphics and astounding photos and artifacts. You leave feeling both humbled and grateful.

In a section dedicated to how the war effort affected the home front in the United States, I was struck by a poster prominently displayed, and one I’ve seen before. It’s a 1942 image of “Rosie the Riveter” flexing her bulging biceps and captioned, “We Can Do It!” Why was that image so familiar?

I remembered that it was adopted as a logo by America3, the Women’s Team, in the 1996 America’s Cup Regatta — a historic syndicate that elevated women sailors to a level never seen before, competing one-on-one with the nation’s best men sailors and holding their own. Never before had I felt so thrilled just to see a bunch of “girls” duke it out and face down the best men in sailing. They did not blink, wince or fold. The Dawn Rileys and and J.J. Islers of that team didn’t make the final cut to defend the America’s Cup that time around, but they changed the event forever and paved a path for future women’s syndicates at the top levels of racing.

But in thinking about Rosie in the museum poster, my thoughts then took me in another direction entirely. In one sense, how trivial did yacht racing seem in the context of a war! How could one even think that such things were important after looking a graphic reminders World War II and the toll it took. Yes, it did seem silly. Maybe America3 overstepped their bounds a bit with this logo image. And, as we face the unsettling aftermath of a war in Iraq, does fussing over the next America’s Cup or Olympics look frivilous or what?

Regardless of how the image has been used, a picture from the 1940s of women pitching in and doing a “man’s job” made me think about how different would my life today be were it not for the thousands of women who did take off their aprons in the 1940s and willingly went to work for the war effort – building ships and aircraft and filling critical jobs as the men were drafted and sent overseas, perhaps never to return. And, so many women back then found they enjoyed working, even when the war was over, that America was never quite the same.

Viewing the story of D-Day and thinking about war and what it must have been like for my parent’s generation was a sobering reminder of the enormous sacrifices made so I could stand here now and even consider my place in a rather special sport like boating. That so many opportunities would open up for women could not have been foreseen when the Rosies were recruited for welding, hammering and running heavy machinery in factories.

I had a long airplane ride to think about what I saw at the D-Day museum. The women who helped build aircraft carriers and Liberty ships changed the nation, and ultimately made it possible for people like me to pursue any job and have the economic resources to own a boat. How strange must it have been for women back then to see everything change overnight — whether they wanted change or not — their modest plans for a normal life completely disrupted by a global cataclysm. Should it happen to us, how would we bear up?

Tom Brokaw’s bestseller, “The Greatest Generation” celebrates the ordinary people who won the war for the United States, a long overdue tribute. For women in the 1990s to choose Rosie the Riveter as their symbol for a sailing campaign does not trivialize that war effort. For women to now have gained entry at the highest competitive levels of just about every sport — as well as government, business and industry— is actually fitting. Sometimes, we just have to stop and appreciate what really happened that got us here.

 

— By Elaine Dickinson