A century and a half before there was Rosie the Riveter there was “Molly Pitcher,” a Revolutionary War heroine who took over her husband’s place at a cannon after he fell wounded at the Battle of Monmouth.
|Ruth Hoffman speaks to a group on the campus of Bowling Green State University. (Photo: J.D. Pooley/Sentinel-Tribune)
Bowling Green’s own Ruth Hoffman was immortalized as “Molly Pitcher, 1944” in a famous poster produced by the Pennsylvania Railroad to honor women who had taken over vital jobs in the railroad industry left vacant when the men went off to fight in World War II.
On Wednesday Hoffman, 88, was the guest of honor at the Bowling Green State University Women’s Center. There she told the story of her war work to four generations packed into the room to witness her donating the framed poster in which she is featured to the center for permanent exhibition.
Working in the rough — even dangerous — railroad yard was as far as it was possible to get from Ruth Hilger’s pre-war life as a Philadelphia high school student.
But when a visiting neighbor mentioned, “We need people on the railroad; we are losing men rapidly” to the war, 17 or 18-year-old Ruth piped up: “I know someone.”
She meant herself.
After she was hired her mother didn’t say much, but her father was appalled. “No young lady works on the railroad,” he told her.
“I ain’t no lady,” she shot back, and ran from the room.
“We didn’t talk like that, and certainly not to our parents,” Hoffman says now, but at the time she was determined to keep her unlikely job even as she began her studies at Temple University.
She realized she’d have to wear slacks on the job, something unheard of for women. The big shock that first week was being asked to come to work on a Saturday. But soon she found herself working shifts as long as 16 hours, from 8 p.m. until 12 the next afternoon, in pouring rain and freezing snow, alongside older men of every possible ethnicity and background.
|Audience members look over a WWII poster that Ruth Hoffman donated to the BGSU Women's Center.
Initially she was given a job working in a switching tower, where she had the responsibility for “directing cars off the hump” in what was, at the time, the largest freight yard in the world.
Eventually she asked her superiors for a job considered even more “man’s work.”
“I said ‘let me try the (manual) switching outside. I think I would like that better than being in a tower.’”
She got her wish.
“You use an oil lamp and swing it to get the trains to stop,” Hoffman said, explaining how a signalman’s job worked.
She often had to walk five or 10 minutes to reach an outlying work site.
“Sometimes I would run up and grab hold and swing onto a (moving) train engine” to save herself a long walk. It was more dangerous than she wanted to admit.
“To get off a train car you swing your body so it’s going in the same direction as the train.”
One night she was conversing with a fellow railroad employee for several minutes “and all of a sudden he said ‘You’re a girl,’ and he ran out.”
Like most all females in the 1940s, she wore her hair long. For her job, “I wrapped up my hair, put a bandanna around it and a railroad cap over it and you couldn’t tell.”
Hoffman says she never even had an inkling that she was being used as the model for the iconic female railroad worker in the 1944 poster.
“One day they said ‘do you mind if we take a picture of you throwing the switch?’”
|Ruth Hoffman is shown in the WWII Pennsylvania Railroad poster on the left as ‘Molly Pitcher.’
Pointing at the determined-looking young female dominating the poster, Hoffman now says, “That’s exactly how I looked, except my jacket was denim, not leather.”
Below the artwork is script: “More than 48,000 experienced Pennsylvania Railroad men have entered our armed forces,” it reads. “Yet wartime’s usual needs for railroad service are being met ... thanks in great part to more than 23,000 women who have rallied to the emergency. From colleges, high schools and homes, these women — after intensive training — are winning the wholehearted applause of the traveling public. You see them working as trainmen, in ticket and station masters’ offices and information bureaus, as platform ushers, in dining car service, yes even in baggage rooms, train dispatchers’ offices, in shops and yards and as section hands.
“The Pennsylvania Railroad proudly salutes these Molly Pitchers who so gallantly fill the breach left by their fighting brothers in arms.”
By spending the war years with the railroad, Hoffman “made her own path in life, never even noticing the more constricted path laid out for her,” points out Ann Bowers, BGSU Jerome Library archivist, who gave the audience an overview of the explosion of women into the U.S. labor force from 1940 to 1945.
In all, 5 to 6 million women took jobs outside the home, often in factories.
The era’s patriotic government propaganda “reflected the ‘necessity’ of women working, avenging the real or likely deaths of husbands and sons, and helping to end the war,” Bowers said.
“For example, we are all familiar with the propaganda-created woman worker — Rosie the Riveter. A Rosie song included the following: “Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie; Charlie, he’s a Marine. Rosie is protecting Charlie, Working overtime on the riveting machine.”
Hoffman, a real-life Rosie, didn’t have a “Charlie” at the time. It wasn’t until she was 39 years old that she married Wes Hoffman, who went on to serve as mayor of Bowling Green from 1992 to 1999. Ruth, retired from the university library, finished out her career in public service as the city’s “first lady.”