It’s a riveting story. Seriously it is. You’ve likely seen this woman in posters but do you know her significance? What she represented, back in World War II and now? Today’s female spotlight is on Rosie the Riveter.
Rosie as a Symbol of Labor
Rosie is shown rolling up her sleeves and saying “We Can Do It!” in World War II posters. But this isn’t where she began, explains the U.S. Department of Labor. The song “Rosie the Riveter” was blaring across radio waves during the war as artist J. Howard Miller, who was commissioned by Westinghouse, created the iconic woman with the polka dot scarf on her head who flexed her bicep.
But this image crafted in 1942 was not intended by Miller to be “Rosie” and many Americans did not consider her to be Rosie either. This poster Miller was employed to create was meant to improve worker morale. The attribution of the name Rosie to it came later.
The popular Rosie name that we know today actually came from famed painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell. He created an image of a muscle-clad woman in overalls, goggles, and honorable pins on her shirt for the cover of the 1943 Saturday Evening Post’s Memorial Day issue. This woman was eating a sandwich and had a lunch pail at her side with the name “Rosie” on it. Her feet are on a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” This cover would become a huge symbol of American go-for-it spirit and showed that not only men were working in the manufacturing industry.
This Rockwell cover proved such a success that newspapers across the U.S. began publishing stories of real-life “Rosies” who were leaving their homes to enter the workforce. The government even began a recruitment campaign for female workers and titled it “Rosie the Riveter.” Some historians contend that this was the American government’s most successful ad campaign to date.
Over the years, Rockwell’s Rosie image was replaced by Miller’s original Rosie and today it is the one that is most popular. The “We Can Do It!” blue bubble in the poster continues to encourage women in spirit all these years later. The image is on everything from t-shirts to coffee mugs.
Women in the Workforce during World War II
With so many American men enlisting in WWII, more and more women began to join the workforce. These numbers had not been seen before. The percentage of working women in the U.S. jumped from 27% to close to 37% between 1940 and 1945. They were encouraged by the government’s recruiting campaign featuring Rosie the Riveter.
Women contributed in many industries, but the biggest increase in jobs held by females was noted in the aviation industry. By 1943, women held more than half of the total jobs (65%) in aviation. Unfortunately, although women were essential in the working wartime efforts, they earned only half of their male counterparts, if they even earned that much.
In the armed forces, about 350,000 women worked on the home front and overseas during World War II. By 1942, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was created, which would later become the Women’s Army Corps. Those in this group became known as WACs. There were also female officers and navy reservists who were part of WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services).
And don’t forget about the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). They were the first ladies to fly American military planes. They had to have their pilot’s license before being eligible to serve, and these pilots were responsible for transporting cargo, participating in simulations, and transferring planes to bases from factories. Over 1,000 WASPs contributed to WWII in total, and 38 of them died in their efforts. Many years later, in 1977, WASPs received complete military status.
Who Did Miller Model his ‘Rosie’ After?
Artist Miller created his image of Rosie in 1942 based on a real woman rather than solely his imagination. She was 17-year-old Geraldine Hoff Doyle. She was photographed on the job as a metal presser in Michigan’s defense factory by an unidentified wire journalist. Miller took this photo and made it into the Westinghouse “We Can Do It!” poster that would go on to become what many consider today to be the iconic Rosie the Riveter.
As for the woman on Rockwell’s cover on The Saturday Evening Post, this was Mary Doyle Keefe. Ironically, Keefe had no experience as a riveter. A telephone operator instead, she was a neighbor of Rockwell, and he asked to model for the painting.
Female Empowerment and Rosie the Riveter Today
Rosie the Riveter’s spirit lives on today. She is symbolic of stepping outside of the image of frailty that is often associated with women and instead shows a fighting spirit. She is inspirational and reminds us to be courageous!
As this post has indicated, Rosie the Riveter was not intended to be the feminist icon that it has grown to be today. Over the years, she has grown to be a cultural icon. The Feminist Movement took on the “We Can Do It!” message in the 1980s. She represents strength and power.
She may have begun as a nameless woman on a poster only associated with the workplace but Rosie the Riveter is far more than that today. She stands for women’s rights, even though that was not the original intention in the World War II poster. It makes sense though, considering she looks brave and inspires those who champion female rights.
~My thanks to GP Cox of Pacific Paratrooper for suggesting I write a post on Rosie the Riveter.~