One of the most powerful tools of communication we have is imagery. As overplayed as the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” is, it sums up the allegorical impact that certain photographs, paintings and other works of visual art have on us. The images captured or conjured during times of conflict are no different, and serve as a bridge between those on the front lines and those coming together to support the effort from home.
Rosie the Riveter is one of the most recognizable war images in modern history. “Rosie” was meant to inspire and encourage women who were working in factories and shipyards during WWII, taking on jobs and roles that, until then, were almost entirely done by men. The image, first created by Pittsburgh-born artist J. Howard Miller in 1942, has been reimagined and reiterated as a symbol of American feminism for decades. The origins of how Rosie came to be, and the women who may have served as inspiration, really go to show just how integral women were (and continue to be) when opportunities were opened up to them.
The name “Rosie the Riveter” actually predates the iconic poster. It was the title of a 1942 song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and was made popular by Kay Kyser, one of the most prominent radio personalities and big band leaders of the ’40s. When J. Howard Miller was commissioned to create a series of war-related images by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, the song’s lyrics lent themselves to evoking a collective image of the women who were taking on those new roles in the workforce.
“All the day long whether rain or shine,
She’s a part of the assembly line,
She’s making history,
working for victory,
Rosie the Riveter.
Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage,
Sitting up there on the fuselage,
That little frail can do more than a
male will do,
Rosie the Riveter”
Norman Rockwell even contributed his own version of Rosie in 1943, which was the cover of the May 29th issue of the Saturday Evening Post. The Rockwell image was actually the more recognized and referenced image of the two during the war, with Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster featuring Rosie gaining more notoriety in the post-war evolution of women’s roles in society, as well as the working world.
In “The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s,” author Susan Hartman credits both images as being a major part of a movement that saw the labor force grow by almost seven million women, with almost 20 million women holding various civilian positions at the height of the war. The “Women in War Jobs” campaign that Rosie the Riveter was part of is thought to be one of the most successful recruitment campaigns in America’s history.
A common question that arises, especially after interest in the image was reinvigorated by the 40th anniversary of the end of WWII in the mid 80’s, revolves around whether or not Miller had a muse when he created Rosie. Was she modeled after one specific woman? There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, but over the years there have been a handful of names that always seem to appear.
The first is Rosalind Walter, a Long Island native who was a riveter for Corsair fighters, as well as the generally regarded inspiration for the original Evans and Loeb song.
The next, and seemingly most plausible, is Naomi Parker Fraley, who not only worked in the machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, CA during the war, but who was photographed there in 1942, wearing the same polka-dotted bandana Rosie was depicted with.
Fraley herself wasn’t even aware of the comparison until 2011, when she found out another woman, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, had been incorrectly attributed as the woman in the photos. Two years before her death in 2018, an article was published proclaiming her to be the “real Rosie.”
A third is Mae Krier, now 95, who worked on B-17s and B-29s in Seattle from 1943-1945. She continues to do advocacy work for all of the “Rosies” of WWII, speaking with Congress about having March 21st be named Rosie the Riveter Day of Remembrance (which was passed in 2017), as well as petitioning for all of the working women from the war to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.
Rosie’s likeness, particularly Miller’s version, was really meant to serve as encouragement for women to take on the roles left unfulfilled due to the number of men leaving to fight overseas, but turned into an unintentional catalyst for the fight for women’s equality as time went on. Almost immediately, the post-war message to women shifted from workforce empowerment to getting women “back in the home,” or at least into the “pink collar” jobs they had held before (such as secretaries, teachers, and waitresses). In some instances, women who chose factory and machine work over being a housewife were publicly shamed for assuming a lifestyle that was unbecoming.
With returning veterans going back to work, and massive layoffs of those who were only temporarily employed, women began to lose their footing in those jobs they had recently assumed. While they unanimously received unequal treatment and pay across the board, more and more women began to realize their abilities and identities outside of the traditional roles of wife or mother, and didn’t want to surrender that just because the war was over.
Rosie and the “We Can Do It!” sentiment has persevered and done so much more than could have been anticipated when that first song hit radios. It’s a visual representation of not only the importance of women during WWII, but the continued value of their presence in roles they have not always been naturally welcomed into. It’s a picture that is unequivocally worth far more than a thousand words.