The “We Can Do It!” poster depicting the no-nonsense woman wearing a red polka-dotted bandana with her arm raised and flexed is a familiar sight in 2013. It’s been so embraced in recent years that you might assume it to be the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter that was known and revered during World War II.
But your assumption would be wrong. This poster, created by Pittsburg commercial artist J. Howard Miller, enjoyed limited circulation during the war and only emerged from obscurity recently as a symbol of women’s empowerment.
For recent generations, the image has represented the quest by women for equal rights and pay at work, equal status with their male counterparts at home, as well as equality under the law.
Rosie the Riveter was the idealized, patriotic woman who gave up domestic life to face the hard knocks of the heavy industrial workplace. More than 6 million American women took traditionally male jobs in the manufacturing of war machines, weapons and munitions to replace the male workers who were called to the battlefield.
Rosie is a legend and, as with most legends, her character is a blend of various inspirational women, real and imagined. During World War II she was the “Liberty Girl,” “Their Real Pin-up Girl” and the patriotic girl who produced battle materiel, gladly purchased war bonds to support the Allied forces, and did without rationed items, such as sugar and nylon stockings.
The powerful female image of Rosie was developed under the auspices of the War Production Board to inspire patriotic behavior. The government circulated thousands of posters and fliers that enticed all Americans to take a part in supporting the war effort.
Giving the female war worker the name of “Rosie” probably started with a newspaper story about Rosalind P. Walter, an aircraft factory worker in New York.
Rosalind (P. Walter), today a philanthropist behind many PBS programs, came from a wealthy Long Island family, and went to work on the night shift right out of high school. The daughter of Carleton Palmer, the president of the pharmaceutical company E.R. Squibb, Rosalind work life inspired songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb to tell her story in song.
Their creation, “Rosie the Riveter” included the lines: “She’s making history, working for victory,” “That little frail can do more than a male can do.” The Four Vagabonds and swing band leader Kay Kyser both recorded popular versions of the song.
Norman Rockwell, the darling of pop culture illustrators at the time, selected dental hygienist Mary Doyle as the model to give a face to the girl in the song. Rockwell’s healthy, muscular “Rosie” appeared on the cover of the 1943 Memorial Day issue of the popular Saturday Evening Post.
With this exposure, Rockwell’s image of Rosie captured America’s imagination. On the other hand, Miller’s “We Can Do It!” was not associated directly with Rosie the Riveter and was seen by only a few, mostly workers in Westinghouse Electric Co. factories.
Miller used a wire service photo of Geraldine Hoff Doyle, a temporary metal presser in a defense factory in Inkster, Mich., for Rosie’s image. The poster was on display for only a few weeks in February 1943.
Other variations of “Rosie” appeared on the Home Front, including Rose Will Monroe, a riveter in Ford’s B-24 Liberator bomber plant in Willow Run, Mich. She was discovered on the job by actor Walter Pigeon and became the star of a government war bonds promotion film. Monroe, a poor widow from rural Kentucky, became a pilot after the war.
Miller’s straightforward depiction of Rosie was later recognized by art historians as they researched material in the National Archives, long after America’s love affair with tough working women ended and Rosie returned to the kitchen.
In 1982, it was featured in an article on patriotic posters in Washington Times Magazine, on the cover of Modern Maturity in 1984 and the Smithsonian Magazine in 1994.
In 1999, a U. S. postage stamp featuring Miller’s image seemed to cement the connection between Rosie and “We Can Do It!”
In 2000, the National Park Service opened a historical park in Richmond, Calif., on the site of four of Henry J. Kaiser’s wartime shipyards. Thousands of women of all races helped to build 747 ships between 1942 and 1945 in the Richmond yards.
Appropriately, the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park staff chose the “We Can Do It!” image for its promotional materials and recently added a new version that features a black Rosie.
In recent decades, feminist writers and historians have identified women’s wartime work as a great precedent for the role of woman in the modern workforce. They’ve rediscovered Miller’s formerly obscure poster and grafted the powerful “We Can Do It!” visual to their cause.