The Story Behind The Famous “Rosie The Riveter” Image

Published May 19, 2017
Updated December 16, 2017

"Rosie the Riveter" is regarded as a feminist icon today, but the image on which it was based had nothing to do with feminism.

Rosie The Riveter Poster

The original Rosie The Riveter poster.Wikimedia Commons

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.

Wartime Propaganda

World War 2 Propaganda

National Archives/Public Domain

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

Can Do Alameda Picture

Wikimedia Commons

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 profile 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 a assisted living facility in Washington State, close to her son’s family.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.