When you think of women in World War II, the first image that pops into your mind is probably of Rosie the Riveter, with her flexed arm and polka-dotted bandana.
“But that just scratches the surface of what women did,” says Sue Wilkins, director of education at The International Museum of World War II in Natick.
The roles of women in WWII were vast, from taking over jobs traditionally held by men while they went off to fight, like factory work or window-washing, to actually seeing action on the front lines, as with Soviet women.
Wilkins knows that the Rosie image is iconic, but she’s hoping that a new exhibit at the museum, officially opening this Friday, will help shed some light on this often-ignored side of history.
Called “Women in WWII: On the Home Fronts and the Battlefronts,” the exhibition uses authentic artifacts and documents from during the war to look at how it affected and involved women in the United States as well as Britain, France, Japan, the Soviet Union and even those affected by the Holocaust.
Those artifacts include things like civil defense uniforms, propaganda posters, letters and photographs, featuring the first female garbage collectors in Chicago and the first female mail carriers in Washington, since men had been deployed.
One of the most visually striking things to Wilkins is the camouflage sniper uniform worn by Soviet women — the only women on the front lines in WWII — that doesn’t let any little bit of skin show through.
“People who know some history of women in WWII sort of latch onto the Rosie the Riveter idea, but that is such a simple view of what women did,” Wilkins says. “I think what’s appealing about this exhibit overall is there’s something for everyone.”
Though the exhibit takes a global look at how the war affected women across the world, there is a special tie to Massachusetts as well, through never-before-shown photographs by Ansel Adams, a renowned landscape photographer who also took pictures of a U.S. internment camp.
These photos capture the Massachusetts Women’s Defense Corps, a volunteer group established in the 1940s in which women trained in medical, communications and other fields to basically prepare, Wilkins says, for if we were ever attacked.
“WWII is just really quite a unique war, historically speaking, and women were absolutely vital to that reality,” she says. “You cannot understand the history of WWII without understanding the number of different roles women took on during the war. It wouldn’t have been possible without women.”
See the Women in WWII exhibit beginning May 25 at The International Museum of World War II, 8 Mercer Rd, Natick. Find more info at museumofworldwarii.org.