Even at age 97, Dr. Frances Tunnell Carter can recall with clarity the day Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation after the Japanese Navy Air Service attacked American soil at Pearl Harbor. She was a sophomore in college. “FDR spoke to the boys and said, ‘If you’re 18 years or older, go ahead and sign up.’” While the men prepared for war, Frances — and countless other women across the nation — took up their own post on the home front. They became Rosies.
A cultural calling card representing women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, Rosie the Riveter is an image that has permeated minds for decades. She represents strength and grit. Dr. Carter, who moved from rural Mississippi to Birmingham, Alabama, to work on B-29 airplanes at the Bechtel-McCone-Parsons Airplane Modification Plant, embodies the “Rosie spirit.” Her gumption didn’t conclude with her Rosie days, however. After the war, Frances married a young Army paratrooper John Carter, whom she met before the war at junior college. The couple went on to teach at the School of Education at Howard College (now Samford University). Along with starting a family, John and Frances taught abroad in Hong Kong and led mission trips to Indonesia, Russia, Mexico and Honduras.
It wasn’t until later on in life that Frances drew on her early years as a Rosie and formed the American Rosie the Riveter Association. Exactly 57 years after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Frances established the association, which now has more than 6,000 members, and it’s important, Frances says, because it recognizes those who played a pivotal part in the war. More so than aiding in the war, Rosies helped pave the way for modern women by breaking gender roles.
Dr. Carter is a living legend, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share some of her story with you today. Her life is one of educational and philanthropic wealth. She hasn’t wasted one breath, and we are honored to feature her as today’s FACE of the South!
What was the workforce climate like for women back in the early 1940s? How did Rosie the Riveter impact that?
You could be a teacher, but you couldn’t be a principal. You could be a nurse, but very few got to be doctors. So we opened the door for women, but that wasn’t the (original) reason. The real reason was to get the boys home.
Why did you decide to help the war effort? What was that like?
We were blue collar construction workers. But (before that) I was a school teacher, and then I decided I wasn’t doing enough and decided to (join the cause). My mother was sick at the time. We called it bronchitis in those days, but it was really emphysema. She said I could go as far as Birmingham.
What was it like, working in Birmingham, back then?
I was living with my aunt at that time and her husband. She was strict. I worked 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and she would watch the clock and wait for me to come home. It was the big city of Birmingham, after all! A lot of women would wear their pants at work and then go into the bathroom and change. And when you saw them in a dress, after being so used to seeing them in pants, you would hardly recognize them.
What prompted you to start the American Rosie the Riveter Association?
I blame it on a couple in my Sunday school class. My husband (John) and I were taking our Sunday nap, and they called and said, ‘Fran, you ought to go get the Sunday paper.’ In the travel section of the Birmingham News, there was an article about the Little White House in Warm Springs, Georgia. That’s where Roosevelt went to take his polio therapy. My friend said they were going to have a day recognizing women who worked during World War 2, and they were asking all the women in the Southeast to come.
And so I told John about it, and he said, ‘Let’s go, I’ll take you.’ So we went on a Saturday in the Spring of 1997. On the way home, I said, ‘You know, we need a club for this. I think it could be a movement.’ A Rosie is anyone who worked during the war. Most of us are in our 80s or 90s now. It’s been that long since World War 2. We needed a way to get them all in one place.
On the way home, John said he would help me start the association. So I guess he should be one of the founders, too! He thought I just wanted to start a club in Birmingham. He didn’t know I meant the whole nation. That the next year, I wrote notices and put them in the paper asking any Rosies out there to give me a call. I went off to a meeting, and while I was gone, John got 12 calls. So I thought it was time to establish a chapter after that.
Only three came to the first meeting. But I kept thinking about it, and a few months later I started writing bylaws. We still only had a few the first year, but I said we were going to go on and do it anyway. We eventually appointed some officers and our numbers grew. On the 7th of December, 1998, which happened to be Pearl Harbor Day, we had the paperwork for the association go through. Then members just started to grow. People would come forth with a sister or a mother who wanted to join.
Before the association was established, there were no records kept on us. We were not military status because were on the home front. Now I tell the women they have to find others who worked during World War 2. If she worked, then she’s a Rosie. If she did anything to help us win the war, then she’s a Rosie. Now we have over 6,000 members covering all states.
How do you think Rosie the Riveter has had a lasting impact on women in the workforce?
We were working men’s jobs. That’s what we did. These were jobs women had never done before. It was educational and patriotic — we were trying to win that war. We were about to lose it. But there were two ways that I think we really impacted women. We influenced fashion — it wasn’t custom for women to wear shorts and slacks before. And the second thing, we opened the door for women to do any kind of work — even men’s work.
What have been your favorite places you’ve traveled to?
John and I traveled a lot together. We went around the world twice. We taught in Hong Kong. We would take groups over there, teachers who would go and teach. We would work at colleges. We also did medical mission trips in Honduras until our mid-80s. Most of the trips we did were after we retired from teaching, long before the association was ever started.
You and John were married for almost 68 years. What’s your best piece of marriage advice? What makes a marriage last?
Well, being in love. We never regretted marrying each other. Neither of us were really bossy, either. We were persistent, but not bossy. John always pushed me, too. If he learned something, then he wanted me to learn it, too. Even flying an airplane — he was determined I would fly one, too. So I got my pilot’s license. That’s not to say I completed everything I set out to do. I failed a few times, but I tried a lot.
Outside of creating the Association and all your travels, what would you say your greatest accomplishment is?
To live a long time, I guess! I’ve outlived almost everyone I know. But seriously, I suppose my greatest accomplishment is getting to work with all kinds of people through teaching. I think we touched a lot of lives.
What’s your best piece of advice for modern, working women?
Women can be catty if we want to be, and you know what I mean by catty. But try to be human about everything. Try to work alongside each other — women and men, and be your own person. Show respect for each other. Show love for each other. Just be good to one another.
What are three things you can’t live without?
My Bible, my brain, and the knowledge that I have enough right now. We — John and I — spent a lot of time without much money. I can remember one afternoon early on in our marriage, we didn’t have 15 cents for a newspaper. But we didn’t even really know we were broke, though, because payday was right around the corner.
Thank you to Dr. Carter for everything you have done not only for our nation, but for generations of women still to come! Thank you, too, to Eric & Jamie Gay of Eric & Jamie Photography for today’s fabulous photos of Dr. Carter.
Meet more amazing Southern women in our FACES archives — click HERE!