Who was Rosie the Riveter?

“Rosie the Riveter” is not so much a historical character, although there are claims to the contrary. In reality, Rosie is an allegory of a strong-willed young woman who broke typical gender roles in the workplace to do her part in winning the war on the domestic front. Rosie is actually an amalgamation of thousands of women who were encouraged to take unfamiliar jobs in steel factories, shipyards, munitions plants, and airplane building centers. World War II required total war. With the overwhelming employment loss caused by so many men leaving the workplace for distant battlefields, women were encouraged to keep the din of the factories humming and the ammunition lines rolling. 

The name “Rosie the Riveter” was the product of a popular 1942 song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. The name would go onto stand for patriotism, feminist strength, and economic independence. The image of the strong woman was made widespread through propaganda, posters, and commercial advertisement.  She was even the subject of a Hollywood film in 1944. 

During the war, some 19 million women were in the workplace. Some were returning after being laid off due to the Great Depression, but many were novices to industrial work. It has been estimated that around 6 million jobs filled by women at this time were war related. Some of these women had husbands in military service and young children at home, so they coordinated assistance and pulled their resources for childcare.

 

In 1942, Westinghouse hired Pittsburgh artist Howard Miller to create posters for the war effort. One called “We Can Do It” features a driven woman in a red bandana, rolling up her sleeve while flexing her muscle. The poster was only used by Westinghouse for a short period of time. It never carried the name of “Rosie the Riveter.” In the 1980s, the image resurfaced as a feminist symbol and was erroneously given the “Rosie” title. Recent investigation suggests that the actual inspiration for the subject was a woman by the name of Naomi Parker (Fraley) who worked at the Alameda Naval Air Station in California, who was not even a riveter. Norman Rockwell, America’s most prominent illustrator, also got into the “Rosie the Riveter” story with a painting published on the cover of the Sunday Evening Post on Memorial Day, May 29, 1943. Unlike the previous example, Rockwell specifically refers to his subject as “Rosie” in this work. His industrial heroine, however, is a powerfully built giant of a woman eating a ham sandwich in one hand with a rivet gun perched on her lap. Rockwell’s “Rosie,” decked out in blue overalls, has a boot firmly atop a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Her collection of buttons includes a Red Cross blood donor button, a “V” for Victory button, a Blue Star Mother’s pin, an Army-Navy Service Production Award, two bronze civilian service awards, and an identification badge. Her lunch pail reads “Rosie.” In actuality, Rockwell’s model was a 19-year-old telephone operator named Mary Louise Doyle. The artist reportedly contacted his model to apologize for expanding her true physique to match the “Rosie the Riveter” persona. She did not seem to take great offense to Rockwell taking such artistic license. 

Toward the end of the war, propaganda shifted. In anticipation of so many veterans trying to reenter the workplace, women were officially asked to return to their previous domestic duties. By 1947, the percentage of women in the workplace did fall from 36% to 28%, but the experience laid the groundwork for future change in American culture. Enjoying the financial independence and pride in their work, some women found permanent employment outside of the household. This encouraged a movement to support advancements in gender equality. Additionally, World War II factories were not typically segregated workplaces. There, whites worked alongside African American, Asian, and Hispanic women, breaking down social barriers and taking on unfair practices of the past. Again, the experience perpetuated a desire for more enduring change, which would come about during the post-war Civil Rights movement. “Rosie the Riveter” might not have been an actual individual, but her iconic image helped to change the societal fabric of the nation and her appearance makes us proud to be Americans. 

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