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Decades after their service, "Rosie the Riveters" to be honored with Congressional Gold Medal

"Rosie the Riveter" inspirations honored
Women who inspired "Rosie the Riveter" receive Congressional Gold Medal 06:05

This week, a long-overdue Congressional Gold Medal will be presented to the women who worked in factories during World War II and inspired "Rosie the Riveter." 

The youngest workers who will be honored are in their 80s. Some are a century old. Of the millions of women who performed exceptional service during the war, just dozens have survived long enough to see their work recognized with one of the nation's highest honors. 

One of those women is Susan King, who at the age of 99 is still wielding a rivet gun like she did when building war planes in Baltimore's Eastern Aircraft Factory. King was 18 when she first started at the factory. She was one of 20 million workers who were credentialed as defense workers and hired to fill the jobs men left behind once they were drafted into war. 

A woman rivets in a World War II factory. CBS Saturday Morning

"In my mind, I was not a factory worker," King said. "I was doing something so I wouldn't have to be a maid." 

The can-do women were soon immortalized in an iconic image of a woman in a jumpsuit and red-spotted bandana. Soon, all the women working became known as "Rosie the Riveters." But after the war, as veterans received parades and metals, the Rosies were ignored. Many of them lost their jobs. It took decades for their service to become appreciated. 

Gregory Cooke, a historian and the son of a Rosie, said that he believes most of the lack of appreciation is "because they're women." 

"I don't think White women have ever gotten their just due as Rosies for the work they did on World War II, and then we go into Black women," said Cooke, who produced and directed "Invisible Warriors," a soon-to-be-released documentary shining light on the forgotten Rosies. "Mrs. King is the only Black woman I've met, who understood her role and significance as a Rosie. Most of these women have gone to their graves, including my mother, not understanding their historic significance." 

Rosie The Riveter artwork. AP

King has spent her life educating the generations that followed about what her life looked like. That collective memory is also being preserved at the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum in Maryland and at Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond, California, which sits on the shoreline where battleships were once made. Jeanne Gibson and Marian Sousa both worked at that site. 

Sousa said the war work was a family effort: Her two sisters, Phyllis and Marge, were welders and her mother Mildred was a spray painter. "It gave me a backbone," Sousa said. "There was a lot of men who still were holding back on this. They didn't want women out of the kitchen." 

Her sister, Phyllis Gould, was one of the loudest voices pushing to have the Rosies recognized. In 2014, she was among several Rosies invited to the White House after writing a letter to then-Vice President Joe Biden pushing for the observance of a National Rosie the Riveter Day. Gould also helped design the Congressional Gold Medal that will be issued. But Gould won't be in Washington, D.C. this week. She passed away in 2021, at the age of 99. 

Phyllis Gould at the White House in 2014. AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, File

About 30 Riveters will be honored on Wednesday. King will be among them.

"I guess I've lived long enough to be Black and important in America," said King. "And that's the way I put it. If I were not near a hundred years old, if I were not Black, if I had not done these, I would never been gone to Washington." 

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