"Rosie the Riveter" is regarded as a feminist icon today, but the image on which it was based had nothing to do with feminism.
In February 1943, workers at dozens of Westinghouse factories across the Eastern and Midwestern United States filed into work past a large propaganda poster. The image, one item from a 42-part series, showed a fiercely determined woman dressed for factory work and flexing her bicep.
Those who installed the image never intended for its distribution to circulate outside of designated Westinghouse factories, and for many years that is precisely what happened.
The now-iconic image known as “Rosie the Riveter” would only enter the spotlight decades later when it was rediscovered and spread by the growing feminist movement. While the poster’s original model and intent were all but lost over time, in many ways the story of the image provides a fascinating glimpse into often overlooked and misunderstood moments from U.S. history.
For decades prior to World War II, management and labor in the United States were in an undeclared war against each other. Following the Civil War, rapid industrialization had created a huge urban population of factory workers who felt their needs were ignored by their employers, and who were prone to strikes and sabotage to get union contracts. Both sides regularly used violence, and many people had been killed.
The New Deal had improved workers’ conditions, but many felt that progress hadn’t happened fast enough, and noisy advocates were hoping to use the crisis of World War II to extract concessions from manufacturers that they couldn’t have gotten in peacetime.
Obviously, the federal government was against anything that might slow down war production, and so large industrialists felt a lot of pressure from both sides. They responded with a propaganda campaign to stave off unhappy workers.
In 1942, Westinghouse was one of the great American industrial combines. The company made more than 8,000 products for the war effort, from America’s first jet engine to atomic bomb components and synthetic materials. A slowdown at a Westinghouse plant would have been disastrous for the War Department, and a strike was out of the question.
To mitigate the risk of this, the company formed what became known as the Westinghouse War Production Committee, which hired Pittsburgh-based artist J. Howard Miller to produce a series of pro-company, anti-union posters that could be displayed for two weeks at a time in its plants across the country. Many of the posters Miller produced encouraged thrift and self-sacrifice, while many others told workers to bring their problems to management (as opposed to the union stewards).
Most of the posters featured men, but the Rosie the Riveter poster incidentally used a female model.
It was not, as popularly supposed, intended to motivate women to join the workforce; during the war, it was never displayed outside of factories where women already were working. After the poster’s initial two-week run in February 1943, it was replaced by another of Miller’s posters and forgotten.
The Model(s) For Rosie The Riveter
Decades after the war, when the poster was rediscovered, some basic (i.e. pre-internet) research turned up an AP Wire Service photograph of a woman working a machine at the Alameda Naval Base that may have inspired the We Can Do It! poster. She is wearing a turban, slacks, and coverall gown that keeps her from getting tangled in the machinery.
A woman from Michigan, Geraldine Doyle, thought she recognized herself in the image and publicly claimed credit as the model. Doyle only worked at a factory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the summer of 1942.
As a cellist, she became afraid that machine work might injure her hands, and so she quit her one and only factory job after just a few weeks and married a dentist. Though she was celebrated as the model for decades, there’s no way she could have been the figure in the picture, which was taken months before she graduated from high school.
A much better candidate for the model is the woman who actually does appear in the wire service photograph: Naomi Parker (above).
Parker only surfaced as the likely source of the image in the 1980s, when she went public with the newspaper clippings of herself that she had saved from the war. The photo appeared in local papers across the country under headlines like: “It’s Fashionless War at Navy Air Base” and “Speaking of Fashions – Navy’s Choice.”
The tone of each story was that of a human interest piece about female workers sacrificing fashionable clothing for safety gear on the job. In the early 2000s, when Geraldine Doyle insisted to the Rosie the Riveter Museum that she had been the woman in the picture, Parker accused her of identity theft and submitted a sworn affidavit, several profiles and full-face pictures of herself, and a notarized copy of her birth certificate for good measure.
Doyle died in 2010 at the age of 86, while Naomi (whose husband, Charles Fraley, died in 1998), now lives under 24-hour care in an assisted living facility in Washington State, close to her son’s family.
The Second Life Of Rosie The Riveter
It is doubtful that anybody outside of the Westinghouse plants in East Pittsburgh and the Midwest saw the Rosie the Riveter during the war.
After all, the poster — of which there were only 1,800 initial copies — was only displayed for ten business days and then shelved with the other posters Miller had made for Westinghouse. It didn’t even get distributed to all of the company’s facilities; the target audience was almost entirely workers in the Micarta resin plants, who made synthetic helmet liners for infantrymen.
Lost among the flood of wartime propaganda images, Rosie the Riveter was passed over by the Office of War Information in its 1943 push to sell War Bonds. Meanwhile, a different image, by iconic artist Norman Rockwell, gained prominence and became the face of women in the wartime workforce: “Rosie the Riveter.”
To be clear – Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” (above) is a totally different image from the one we now know as “Rosie the Riveter,” done by a different artist and for a different audience. The Rockwell painting, which really is called “Rosie the Riveter,” appeared on the cover of a 1943 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, and features a different model posing in imitation of Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel.
It was by far the more famous of the two images, but ironically it was doomed to a limited distribution because it was a copyrighted image. The Estate of Norman Rockwell has always vigorously enforced its ownership of the artist’s work, and so the original Rosie gradually fell out of circulation.
The other Rosie the Riveter, however, having been lost and forgotten years before, was perfectly poised to step into the spot Rockwell’s Rosie was too expensive to fill.
Rediscovering And Repurposing Rosie The Riveter
The original poster that Miller did for Westinghouse found its way into the National Archives, where it sat with other wartime posters for 40 years until, in 1982, it was unearthed by Washington Post Magazine as part of a retrospective on war propaganda.
The image immediately struck a chord with feminist activists and publishers, who saw in the figure a blend of feminine and aggressive characteristics that sat well with their ideology.
Ironically, where the 1942 poster had only incidentally used a female subject for a gender-neutral message that was aimed at male and female workers alike, the reborn image was seized on explicitly for the sex of its subject and spread far and wide.
In 1994, the image made the cover of Smithsonian magazine, and with the rise of the internet, all bets were off. Online image boards and graphic arts websites act as high-speed meme generators, allowing uploaders to swiftly download an original image, modify it on their own computers, and then re-upload the image with slight (or drastic) changes that will either encourage the image’s spread or inhibit it.
Socially and politically motivated artists have made thousands of variants of Rosie the Riveter, some expressing a political message, others hawking products, still others intended as satire or farce.
In the 20 or so years since its emergence online, it’s fair to say that the image of an attractive, fiercely determined female worker rolling up her sleeve for a hard day’s butt-kicking has become one of the most viewed images of all time — even if its original purpose was to discourage union solidarity.
After learning about Rosie the Riveter, step back into World War II with these photos of the real-life Rosie the Riveters who helped power the American war effort. Then, meet the most bad ass women of World War II.