It’s an image that’s instantly recognizable. In it, a woman with a determined expression on her face shows off her muscles – and it eventually makes her a feminist icon from a time when gender roles were in flux. But just what is the real story behind Rosie the Riveter?
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the event heralded a new era in United States war goods production. As a result, factories were forced to overcome the strife between bosses and the unions that had characterized the 1930s and work together to support the war effort.
Consequently, Westinghouse Electric’s War Production Coordinating Committee decided to hire artist J. Howard Miller from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to produce a series of motivational posters with the aim of inspiring its staff. More than 40 such posters were designed, each aimed at improving cohesion in the workplace and boosting worker morale.
The posters were subsequently displayed on a rotational basis throughout Westinghouse Electric’s factories in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. And eventually, on February 15, 1943, the now-familiar image of a female factory worker made its first appearance.
Like many American factories during World War II, the workforce at Westinghouse Electric was made up mainly of women. As men were called up to fight on the other side of the world, their wives and sisters subsequently stepped up to take on their roles.
Previously, there had been a general belief that women were somehow incapable of laboring at technical and manual jobs such as welding and riveting. However, during the war, many of them excelled in these roles, producing the supplies needed to support the war effort abroad.
During this time, meanwhile, the cultural icon of Rosie the Riveter began to emerge. Originally a character featured in a 1942 song about a female assembly-line worker, this image of a strong, capable woman engaged in industrial labor came to represent the entire social phenomenon of women working during the war.
The character of Rosie the Riveter is largely credited with inspiring millions of women to join the workforce – and often even with helping to subsequently pave the way for future equality. However, many critics are quick to point out that most women were discharged from their roles soon after the war, with their jobs offered instead to returning men.
Today, Miller’s iconic image of a woman worker dressed in red, white and blue is one of those most commonly associated with Rosie the Riveter. And many believe that the poster was part of a large-scale national wartime campaign to encourage women into the workplace. However, in reality the printed picture wasn’t seen outside Westinghouse Electric until the 1980s.
Indeed, for four decades after its short stint on the factory walls, the poster languished in obscurity. In 1982, though, it was plucked from the vaults and featured in an article about poster art from the National Archives, published in the Washington Post Magazine.
Initially, the “We Can Do It!” message was intended to encourage all factory workers, male and female, to work together for the greater good. However, when the poster was rediscovered, the slogan was interpreted to have a feminist meaning. And as a result, the image took on a new role as an empowering icon in the fight against sexism.
Since its rediscovery, meanwhile, the poster has featured on everything from magazine covers to stamps, T-shirts and other memorabilia. Replicas have subsequently been used in advertising and political campaigns all around the world, and a mobile phone app has even been created that allows users to insert their own faces into the iconic image.
And as the poster’s fame has grown, several different stories have sprung up laying claim to its origins. The Advertising Council of the United States, for example, has claimed credit for the design – although research has concluded that Miller was the original artist behind the concept.
But who inspired Miller to create the image that would go on to motivate generations of women? Well, for years, a Michigan woman named Geraldine Hoff Doyle was believed to have filled that role.
In 1984 Doyle stumbled across a snap of a young woman wearing a distinctive polka dot bandana in Modern Maturity magazine. She recognized herself as the girl depicted and believed that the image had been captured while she worked in a factory in 1942.
Furthermore, when Doyle happened to see the rediscovered “We Can Do It!” poster on the cover of the Smithsonian magazine a decade later, she was sure that that also depicted her. And, recognizing the similarities between the girl depicted in the photograph and the iconic poster, the media readily accepted that the identity of Miller’s muse had finally been discovered.
However, all that changed when Naomi Parker Fraley, from California, paid a visit to the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, CA, in 2009. There, the photograph of Doyle was displayed along with a caption proclaiming it to be the likely inspiration for Miller’s poster.
Parker Fraley quickly realized that it was in fact herself and not Doyle depicted in the photograph, which had been taken at the Naval Air Station in Almeda, CA. But despite owning original newspaper clippings that named her in the caption, she found it difficult to cement her rightful place in history.
In 2015, however, Professor James J. Kimble from Seton Hall University in New Jersey tracked down Parker Fraley as part of a six-year mission to conclusively identify the woman in the photograph. He was finally able to confirm her identity, and thanks to his work, Parker Fraley has begun to receive the recognition that she deserves.
Moreover, despite there being no actual evidence to suggest that Miller even saw the photograph in question, Parker Fraley is ready to step into Rosie the Riveter’s ever-changing shoes. “The women of this country these days need some icons,” she told People in September 2016. “If they think I’m one, I’m happy about that.”