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Rosie the Riveter: Definition, Facts & History

Instructor: Michael Sweeney

Michael has taught college Art and secondary English and Social Studies. He has a Master of Fine Arts and a Masters of Library and Information Science.

She now adorns coffee mugs and mouse pads and college dorm walls, but she was not always the feminist defender that we recognize today. Learn about Rosie the Riveter, World War II's bicep flexing woman in a blue collar shirt, and the female factory workers who inspired her image.

Definition

Today, Rosie the Riveter is iconic. A celebrity image, empowering women to recognize their own strength and fight back. Her image has been applied to breast cancer awareness and the fight for equal pay, but her roots are a bit different. Throughout World War II, the Rosie the Riveter character was mainly a propaganda tool to rally female support for the war at home. The mythic Rosie the Riveter was a patriot, filling a significant role in a time of national need.

Surprisingly, J. Howard Miller's commissioned poster We Can Do It , the one we have come to know best in recent years, was not actually the most famous image of this World War II icon in its day. Many depictions existed, including a more widely publicized Saturday Evening Post cover by the renowned illustrator Norman Rockwell loaned to the U.S. Treasury Department to promote war bonds. Even before becoming a poster girl, Rosie was made famous by the Evans and Loeb song from 1942, appropriately titled 'Rosie the Riveter', providing an answer to the question 'Mommy what did you do in the war?'

1942 Rosie the Riveter poster by J. Howard Miller
J. Howard Millers We Can Do It

History

Domestic propaganda is the government use of media campaigns to gain support for its policies or actions from its own citizens. Rosie's early purpose in WWII as a domestic propaganda image eventually changed into a symbol of the abilities and rights of women in the workplace. However, both aspects of her identity oversimplify the truth about the participation of women into the workplace before, during and after the war. To understand how Rosie changed, it is important to begin with the fact that large numbers of American men signed up to join the war in the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Factory positions of all kinds were left empty. If the tools of war, from guns and bombs to soldiers' rations were going to be produced, women would be needed to complete the factory work normally done by men of that era.

With Rosie's help, companies such as manufacturing giant Westinghouse encouraged women to become this labor force and eventually the government also adopted the character to encourage sacrifice and effort as a support to the war effort. Both Rosie the Riveter campaigns announced opportunities for women to enter the workforce that had not been readily available due to the economic and social conditions marked by the Great Depression prior to the war. Women took these jobs to support their families and their country. During the war years, the ranks of women in the workplace grew by nearly 60 % to 20 million. Approximately 300,000 were the Women Ordnance Workers (WOW), who were most closely associated with Rosie the Riveter. Photography contests documented these real life 'Rosies.' The 'We Can Do It' image was drawn from a photograph of Michigan factory worker Geraldine Hoff, displaying a WOW bandana prominently on her head.

A woman factory worker during WWII.
A woman factory worker during WWII.

It should be noted that there are many accounts of working conditions that show women did not receive respectful treatment in the actual workplace as is implied by the poster campaign. Much of this manufacturing work was more dangerous than some military roles (such as clerks and other positions behind the lines). WOW members operated heavy machinery, built weapons, and handled munitions, while women in other manufacturing jobs faced similar health and safety concerns as they fulfilled jobs previously done by men, yet they often received low pay and poor treatment from predominantly male supervisors.

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