Her lips are red, her hair tucked up in a red and white polka-dot bandana, and she clenches her fist in power.
Who was the real Rosie the Riveter of poster fame? Through the years there have been several women who believed they were the inspiration for the icon. One woman, Naomi Parker Fraley, photographed in 1942 working in a U.S. Naval machine shop, seems to have been the most likely candidate.
However, the important question is not who, but why the poster image has endured.
To answer that, we need to go back in history.
Before WWII, only 27% of the workforce in the United States were women; mainly in jobs as secretaries, nurses, and teachers. When the men marched off to war, their employment positions needed to be filled, especially in the aviation and shipbuilding industries so crucial to American success.
Approximately 2.5 million women entered the workforce to replace the men. But, as in all wars, the home front needed encouragement. In 1942 Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a song entitled Rosie the Riveter, which paid tribute to all the women who had gone to work in the factories.
American companies wanted their employees to feel they were doing their patriotic part as well.
Enter Westinghouse, an electric power company headquartered in Pennsylvania who commissioned J. Howard Miller, a Pittsburg artist, to draw an image inspiring patriotic spirit among the workers. Miller presumably saw the photograph that had circulated in all the major newspapers of the day showing a young woman clad in overalls, wearing a red and white polka-dot bandana, and working on a lathe at the Alameda Naval Air Station in California.
A year later, noted American artist Norman Rockwell drew a well-muscled Rosie the Riveter taking a sandwich break in a factory for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s art was copyrighted and therefore could not be duplicated. Miller, however, had not copyrighted his art. His image became the poster we know today as Rosie the Riveter.
The real Rosies were young women from all over America who heeded the nation’s call. During WWII, 65% of the aviation industry was female. Even though the women were paid 50% less for the same jobs that had previously been held by men, the women took their places riveting airplane wings and tails, and soldering parts of military ships.
While many Rosies worked in machine shops, 350,000 Rosies enlisted in the military as WACs (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) and WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots).
The Rosies came from diverse backgrounds. It was not uncommon to find a young girl from a small town in Alabama now working in a munitions base in Hagerstown, Maryland. A different girl from New York City might find herself mopping her brow in low country humidity as she worked on the Liberty Ships off the coast of Georgia.
The Rosies worked side by side on assembly lines, regardless of skin color, or ethnic backgrounds.
In August of 1945 when the men of WWII arrived home, the Rosies were thanked and told to return to their families.
But the Rosies had changed the status quo of America. They might have worn lipstick with their overalls, but they had also learned a valuable lesson: women could perform many of the same jobs as men.
Their daughters became part of the Baby Boomer Generation, and those girls grew up hearing from their Rosie mothers: “Go after any job you want.”
While the Rosie poster proclaims, “We Can Do It,” the reader is left to translate the intended message. As a nation, we are 75 years past the incarnation of Rosie the Riveter.
The “We Can Do It” means that the women of America are still strong.
Thank you to Avery Blumenthal for inspiring this month’s strong woman.
Catch me on Twitter @LHsittig, my website: lindasittig.com, Pinterest as I pin photos that inspire me to write, or on Amazon where my two novels, Cut From Strong Cloth (www.amzn.com/19405530624) and Last Curtain Call (www.amzn.com/19405530267) are available.
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