Section: Features

‘Women Who Worked’: Raya Kenney’s monumental idea

‘Women Who Worked’: Raya Kenney’s monumental idea

Raya Kenney ’25 | BRITTANY LIN

Buried in the pages of last December’s Omnibus Appropriations Bill is a personal dream come true for Raya Kenney ’25. After nearly a decade of lobbying Congress on behalf of her nonprofit organization, the National Memorial to the Women Who Worked on the Home Front Foundation, Kenney finally saw the legislation signed into law. Kenney and her foundation will now begin the lengthy process of building the monument. 

During World War II, as American men entered the war en masse as soldiers, millions of women joined the workforce, assuming positions such as factory workers, butchers, engineers, farmers, codebreakers, pilots and countless other jobs that kept the home front functioning. Known as “Rosies” after “Rosie the Riveter,” these women paved the way for future feminist endeavors that would carve out a more permanent place for women in the workforce and changed the course of history in the United States. Despite the incredible significance of their contributions, these women, whom Kenney calls the “Women Who Worked,” have received relatively little commemoration for their labor.

Kenney first learned about these women when she was assigned a school project in fifth grade to build a model monument to something that hadn’t yet been honored in Washington, D.C. “I had just watched ‘A League of their Own,’ and I absolutely loved it,” Kenney said. “And so I started researching about the women baseball players [from the movie], which led me into the ‘We Can Do It’ Rosie the Riveter poster and tons of other research about the civilian Women Who Worked during the war, so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna build my model to them.’” Kenney immediately jumped into the design and construction process. “My mom took me to Home Depot and got all the supplies and I showed it to my teacher and she said, ‘You should try to get it built.’” 

Her idea for the monument features a series of pillars in a V formation, each labeled with one of 80 jobs that women held for the first time during the war. Kenney explained that the V shape has special symbolic significance: “During World War II, men and women of all different types would stand in a V at sports games and school assemblies to symbolize victory for the war. I thought that was a very cool connection.” Though there have been minor changes over the years, the basic idea for the monument has remained more or less the same. 

Kenney began the lengthy process of getting the memorial passed into law at age 11 by reaching out to her local congressperson. “I remember going into the office for the first time and being so nervous. But ultimately [it was] very exciting, getting to meet all of the legislative aides, all the people who actually talk to you in the office. It’s been really, really great.” Kenney also noted her excitement about connecting with congressional staffers, many of whom have their own relationships with Women Who Worked. “A lot of times in the meetings staffers will be like, ‘Oh, my grandmother worked,’ or, ‘I have a friend who knows somebody who worked,’” she said.

Although there has been a litany of setbacks — including the pandemic and a government shutdown — that Kenney has had to endure throughout the process, she stressed that there have been many uplifting moments too. A highlight of the experience for Kenney was being able to speak with surviving “Rosies” and talk about their time in the workforce. Her connection with them, including letter correspondence as well as in-person conversations, illuminated aspects of their effort that Kenney hadn’t previously considered. “It’s just been interesting to see how they all think about their work differently,” she said. “The way they talk about the independence that the work force brought them and the sense of capability that they weren’t able to have before the war. Just the blossoming of the ‘I’m capable of doing this’ spirit and also the impact they’ve had on people our age and younger, who now have so many opportunities that they wouldn’t have had.”

Public reception to the memorial has been overwhelmingly positive: “It’s been really fun to watch everyone get excited about this idea,” she said. “I think everyone is incredibly supportive of the idea; it’s bipartisan and just such a large effort. We have so few memorials and monuments and even streets named for women. So I think it’s vital that we get them more recognized in a place that people actually go to.” 

The next step will be collaborating with the National Parks Service to find a site for the monument to be built, and after that, Kenney will begin formulating the final design. Fundraising and outreach will be integral to moving the project forward, but much like the women she is seeking to honor, she is up for the challenge: “Ultimately, the reward is all the more sweet,” she said.

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