LOS ANGELES (AP) — Her male colleagues jokingly call her a forewoman, and Ami Rasmussen jokes right back that she’s really a fivewoman because when it comes to building trains she can do the work of five men.
The factory foreman and divorced mother of two teenagers is also a photography model of sorts now. Rasmussen, in work clothes and holding a gigantic wrench, is featured prominently in the photo art exhibition “Women Can Build” currently at Los Angeles’ historic Union Station, with plans to take it to other stations across the country later this year.
The exhibit features 15 color photographs by Pulitzer Prize-winner Deanne Fitzmaurice juxtaposed against 25 World War II-era photos of “Rosie the Riveter,” the catchall name for the women who, with rivet guns and other tools in hand, kept American manufacturing running while their male counterparts were off fighting the war.
“She was in the factory building all of this incredible equipment, helping America win the war, and then when the men came back, she was basically kicked out of the factory,” said Madeline Janis, director of Jobs to Move America, a group that advocates for transit-industry jobs.
With a recently released University of Southern California study revealing that although women comprise nearly half the U.S. labor force, only 30 percent work in manufacturing, Janis set out to learn “what happened to all those Rosies.”
She discovered they are still out there, albeit in smaller numbers, and approached Fitzmaurice to ask if she could capture them in their element. The idea was that showing factory work in an art form might inspire more women to seek jobs building trains, buses and trolleys.
“Immediately I loved the idea,” said Fitzmaurice, the winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. “Thinking about these women working in a male-dominated business, working their way in, kind of reminded me a lot of what I’ve done as a photojournalist working in a male-dominated profession.”
She packed up her gear last summer and traveled the country, photographing women in factory towns in California, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota.
She found Stacey Corcoran, a pioneer in the modern-day Rosie movement, at a factory in Rochelle, Illinois, where the 4-foot-4-inch teacher-turned-electrician builds rail cars. Corcoran said she ran into both foul language and resistance when she entered the nearly all-male profession more than 20 years ago. But she overcame it by saying she wouldn’t tolerate it and by showing her co-workers there were things she could accomplish that they couldn’t.
“I’m so small I can get in places they can’t,” laughed Corcoran, photographed holding a drill nearly as big as she is.
“Hey, that’s me,” Rasmussen, dressed in a skirt, blouse and sweater, said as she came across her photo on a recent day at Union Station, where travelers heading to and from their trains paused to take in the exhibition.
“I’m torqing down bolts,” the shop foreman explained, pointing to herself taking a wrench to a rail-car chassis.
Fitzmaurice drew inspiration from the Library of Congress’ original Rosie photos, but not too much.
Although the first-generation Rosies were photographed performing factory work, many were glammed up a bit, wearing makeup and lipstick for their photo shoots. Fitzmaurice wanted a more on-the-job look, like the one she got when she saw Lilla Wallace striding across an LA factory floor, wearing a hard hat and holding a wrench. She shouted to her, “Hey, can we photograph you?”
As for why there aren’t more modern-day Rosies, the women say reasons often come down to preconceived notions — from both sexes.
“I ran into some stereotyping within the factory,” Rasmussen said of her first day on the job. “There were 130 men in there, and there was a little hesitation, like ‘Can she really do it?’
“And for a minute — really, just a minute — I had a little hesitation myself,” admitted the former Army mechanic. “But then I thought: I got this.”
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