We instantly recognize her from the famous Westinghouse “We Can Do It!” poster: a determined face, feminine fingers rolling back a blue work shirt to reveal a strong bicep, a show of strength and resolve. And yet, this iconic image was not widely seen until the mid-1980’s.
Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee hired Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller to create a series of posters for the war effort. One of these posters became the famous “We Can Do It!” image—an image that in later years would also be called “Rosie the Riveter,” though it was never given this title during the war. Miller is thought to have based his “We Can Do It!” poster on a United Press International wire service photograph taken of Geraldine Hoff, a 17 year-old girl working in a factory as a metal-stamping machine operator in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The intent of the poster was to keep production up by boosting morale, not to recruit more women workers. It was shown only to Westinghouse employees in the Midwest during a two-week period in February 1943, and then it disappeared for nearly four decades.
What is lesser known is that it was Norman Rockwell’s depiction of the “real” Rosie that ended up inspiring American women, thanks to mass distribution on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Rockwell’s illustration features a brawny woman taking her lunch break with a rivet gun on her lap and beneath her penny loafer, a copy of Hitler’s manifesto, Mein Kampf. Her lunch pail reads “Rosie.” Readers quickly recognized this to be “Rosie the Riveter” from a popular song at the time. Rockwell’s model was 19 year-old Mary Doyle, a telephone operator (not a riveter), near where Rockwell lived in Vermont. Rockwell painted his “Rosie” as a woman somewhat larger than his model, and he later phoned her to apologize. The Post’s cover image was so popular that the magazine loaned it to the U.S. Treasury Department for the duration of the war for use in war bond drives.
Women quickly responded to Rosie the Riveter, whose image from the Post convinced them that they had a patriotic duty to enter the workforce. Some claim that she forever opened the workforce for women.
I often wonder what people saw in the face of Rosie during the war. I imagine that many women saw the slogan and thought: “Well, of course we can do it! What do you think we’ve been doing all this time, hiring fairies to raise kids and do grueling housework all day, every day?” Other women may have looked at Rosie’s face and thought: “That’s me! I can really do a man’s job?” But from what I am told, many saw the slogan as permission. Most women opted to take the jobs that were being advertised to them, even though many of their husbands were unwilling to support them. One such ad read: “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.”
Nearly 19 million women held jobs during World War II. Some women already held jobs previously sanctioned by gender and were moved to men’s jobs during the war. More than 3 million women ended up joining the workforce in the short amount of time the US was officially involved in WWII.
Sadly, when victory seemed assured for the United States, government-sponsored propaganda changed into urging women to go back to working in the home. This is still a contentious topic. Men came home from war to a job shortage, and yet many were disabled and many never came home at all, leaving the wives to be the sole breadwinners of the family.
That was the beginning, though. There would be a long road ahead, and there is still much work to be done for gaining wage equality and personal freedoms for women. But this was another spark for all of us women, along with the Suffragettes, the women workers from the WWI era, and the ERA movement.
As we always say at the Retrocentric Studio, we are all equally beautiful in our own unique way. We don’t have to apologize for embracing our femininity. It makes us no less powerful; on the contrary, it’s what defines our power.
So, look now to all the women of Rosie’s time for strength and inspiration. I want to thank each and every strong woman who suffered injustices due to her gender, who persevered throughout the generations in a world not built for her. I want to thank every woman who works either at home or in the workplace. May true equality be within close reach.
We Can Do It!