Rosie the Riveter wasn’t only one woman. She stood for the thousands of women who worked on the home front during World War II keeping things running.
Velia Constantino, 89, of North Kingstown was one of them. She started working for her father when she was a teenager in his blacksmith shop where she gained experience operating a drill, working on the milling machine and tempering picks. When she turned 18 in 1942, she landed a job at Brown and Sharp in Providence, where she worked with mostly men. She was the youngest in the department. She operated a drill press until she hurt a finger at which time she was transferred to filing parts for gunboats.
“See,” she said in a recent interview holding up her hand. “ I have war wounds from the home front.”
“We didn’t have good hairstyles then because they were always put away under our hats,” Constantino said.
Being ladylike wasn’t much of a concern for Constantino. She remembers seeing office ladies who were making $25 per week during bathroom breaks and the looks that would follow.
“They would say to me, ‘What dirty hands you have,’” said Constantino. “I would just respond, ‘Yeah, but the money is cleaner.’”
She kept to herself that she was making three times more than them as a factory girl. The excellent paychecks made up for the oil splashes all over her face and arms while working with a lathe, she said.
Constantino was part of the Brown and Sharp Glee Club that performed in plays, sang in hospitals and entertained during lunch hour. She said it offered her a release from her six-day workweek that began at 6:30 a.m. and wouldn’t end till dark.
“I was a worker. I didn’t know what sunlight was,” she said.
When the men came home after the war, she said many women were laid off because working machines was a man’s job.
“They kept me,” said Constantino. “The money was good, but I didn’t want to grind the heads of screws for the rest of my life.”
She was later employed by the Narragansett Electric Company for 40 years working in accounts payable and was the switchboard operator.
She said she loved her job but joked she never wants to look at a typewriter again. She smiled when she said her boss told her that no one could operate the switchboard better than her.
Constantino is the only member in Rhode Island of the American Rosie the Riveter Association, a non-profit national organization that recognizes workingwomen of World War II. Dr. Frances Carter from Alabama, once a riveter on airplanes, founded it in 1998 because she wanted to document records of the women who worked in that era. Now, the association has 4,750 members, and they hold conventions all around the country.
“It’s getting harder trying to find these women before they pass,” said Mabel Myrick, membership vice president.
Myrick is 88 years old and worked as a secretary in the Pentagon. She now writes letters to editors around the country encouraging women to sign up and tell their stories. The association has published four storybooks written by the riveters or their daughters in memory.
The Federal Hill Gazette posted that the association was seeking employees of World War II a few years ago. Constantino saw it and then became a member.
There is significance in these women telling their stories, said Constantino.
“I have an understanding of how to make a living and I can offer that to younger people,” she said, although not sure who would be interested in her story.
She recently received a letter from Governor Lincoln Chaffee recognizing her work during her earlier years on the home front. The letter stated she was chosen to represent the riveters of Rhode Island and that May 24 this year was Rosie the Riveter Day in the state.
Factory days are over for Constantino, and she has now taken a new interest in acting. She’s been in 13 movies playing a grandmother, librarian and a psychic. Constatino’s Italian heritage has led her to be a member of the Italian American Historical Society of Rhode Island, participates in the Newport Festa Italiana where she goes on trips all around Italy and used to take Italian classes to continue practicing the language. She spoke Italian before English and reminisced about writing to her grandmother in Italy.
It wasn’t so much that she was a woman at the Brown and Sharp Factory that made her stand out. She explained how she was in the minority as an Italian working at an Irish company, which had her always be on guard.
“I got along with my supervisors very well, but I was always asked who I knew that got me into the company,” Constantino said.
She was proud to tell them that her own merits landed her the job without the need of connections.
Although she doesn’t have children of her own, Constantino enjoys her 22 nieces and nephews. She never married.
“I miss working,” she said. “I miss the public contact.”
The American Rosie the Riveter Association is still seeking working women of World War II and can be contacted at 1-888-557-6743 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.