by Leah Mitchell
Rosie the Riveter, a beloved American icon and feminist mascot, helped change the course of U.S. history, but was she just a piece of fictional propaganda – or was she modeled after a real woman? In 1943, a Norman Rockwell painting was published on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post featuring a version of “Rosie” in front of a U.S. flag and a copy of Mein Kampf under her boots, however the most recognized depiction of Rosie was created the year before by Howard J. Miller of Pittsburgh for a Westinghouse Electric Corporation motivational poster. This version features the familiar polka-dot bandanna wearing Rosie with her fist raised under the words “We can do it!”.  While the feminist icon was originally meant to symbolize women in the workforce in general, the inspiration for Howard J. Miller’s poster may very well have been based on a real woman.
For many years Rosie’s identity was attributed to a Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who mistakenly recognized herself in the picture taken at a factory in 1942 of the pretty young woman in a polka dot bandanna working the lathe. Whether her claims that she was the woman from the photo were intentional deceit or an honest mistake cannot be known for certain, as Ms. Doyle passed away in 2010. Years later, Naomi Parker Fraley claimed that the picture of the working woman was her, but even with the original 1942 newspaper clipping correctly identifying the woman in the picture as herself, it seemed no one would listen.
Meanwhile, scholar James J. Kimble was skeptical about the identity of the woman in the photograph simply due to the media’s willingness to accept Doyle’s claims as gospel truth with no proof, and in 2010 began what would become a six-year long search for the facts. Kimble eventually came across the captioned photograph taken of Naomi Parker Fraley that had been long incorrectly identified as Geraldine Hoff Doyle. Fraley bears a striking resemblance to the “Rosie” depicted in his poster, and, perhaps not coincidentally, the picture of Naomi was originally printed in The Pittsburgh Press (Miller’s hometown paper) in the summer of 1942. The odds that Miller saw the photograph while creating his poster for Westinghouse are significant.
Rosie the Riveter was at the heart of a very successful propaganda campaign aimed to recruit women into the work force during World War II. With so many male workers joining the war efforts, women were needed to fill their industrial labor positions in factories back home, especially in the munitions and aviation industries, in which women made up 65% of the workforce in 1943. Even though women rarely made over 50% of the salary a man would make at the same job, between 1940 and 1945 the percentage of female workers rose from 27% to 37%. To serve their country, roughly 350,000 women also joined the military, though they were only considered civil service employees and given no official military status. These numbers clearly illustrate how the Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign had a significant impact on U.S. history.
By 1945 the war was ending and unfortunately, the once enthusiastic propaganda took on a discouraging tone. Initially imploring women to help fill the shoes of the men at war, now the media began to embarrass or shame those same women into returning home to make room for male employees. When that did not work, many simply became victims of massive layoffs, or were deliberately assigned more demanding tasks to motivate them to resign on their own. Many female workers expressed pride, feelings of accomplishment, and increased self-worth while employed in the factories and fought to keep their jobs. The taste of freedom women experienced when the usual patriarchal norms were suspended made a lasting impact on the Women’s Right’s Movement and U.S. history.  Since we may never know with 100% accuracy who inspired Rosie the Riveter, perhaps as a society we can simply continue honoring hard working women across the globe for their contributions to their countries and the evolution of humanity itself.
We can do it!
|Leah Mitchell is a sorceress with words, freelance content writer and the Lead Content Writer and Editor at QUALTEES.com|