June Robbins

Charlotte Reese/KYW Newsradio

2 Philly 'Rosies' helped break the glass ceiling during World War II

June 07, 2019 - 5:00 am

By Charlotte Reese

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — By now, you know the story of Rosie the Riveter. But more than half of "Rosies" providing a helping hand to the war effort were actually not riveters.

Nearly 70 years later, they want modern women to know their stories.

"We've come a long way, baby," June Robbins, 92, reminisced. "We broke through the glass ceiling."

Robbins and thousands of other women worked jobs traditionally held by men during World War II. She started working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard at just 17 years old.

"I'll be 93 in September. No, no, no, I'm rushing things. I better not do that," she joked.

But when Robbins was a student at Olney High School, she was rushing things. She convinced her teachers to help her get a job at the Navy Yard before she was of legal age.

"I told him, Mr. Hall, (who had) an all-boys drafting class, that I really needed to learn how to do mechanical drawing. This way, I could help in the war effort," she said.

Rose Shelengian
Charlotte Reese/KYW Newsradio
Not too far from the Navy Yard was Westinghouse, a defense plant where many young women worked, including Rose Shelengian. When she graduated from high school in 1942, she quickly got a job at Westinghouse working on the surface grinder.

"If I saw (a surface grinder) today, I would even know how to use it," Shelengian, now 94, said. "It’s so embedded in my mind of what to do and what not to do."

Shelengian and Robbins held those jobs until the war ended. Then, “we were all let go — I don't think anybody cared. I know I didn't care.”

Both women later married servicemen and settled into the Philadelphia area to raise their families. Shelengian went on to learn secretarial work, and "life went on," she said. Robbins started a career in aerial map-making because she could read blueprints in a unique way.

But they're both found a way to stay connected to the Rosie movement. Both women and hundreds of others are involved in the American Rosie Movement, or ARM, which aims to reunite Rosies from across the country and share their stories.

“We should know what women did at that time,” Shelengian explained. “Really, the women contributed a great deal.”

Robbins has her eyes on her former place of work: the Navy Yard. "There's a building that's visible from I-95. I would like that to be a mural for the Rosies. Not just the Rosies of the past, but the Rosies of the present and also the servicemen that we backed."

To hear more about ARM and Robbins' and Shelengian’s stories, download the KYW Newsradio original podcast Scroll Down.