Woman of the Week
Rosie the Riveter
This is the final in a series of pieces in honor of Women’s History Month in which we asked each of our editors to discuss her favorite historical female heroine. Samantha Gendler, assistant managing editor, chose Rosie the Riveter.
Long before Sally Fields played Norma Rae, and when pants-wearing Katharine Hepburn was still considered scandalous, one inspirational woman was muscling her way into the well-manicured homes of 1940s Middle America to say “We can do it!”
Rosie the Riveter, though she hadn’t yet reached icon status with that particular moniker, was responsible for a shift in perception. Not only did Rosie make it acceptable for women to enter the workforce for the first time, but she told them it was their patriotic duty to fill the positions while their men were fighting World War II. In a decade with so many firsts for women, it’s possible that the most influential, most widely recognized activist of the era was indeed fictional.
Out of all the women in history, why did you choose Rosie the Riveter as your personal favorite?
I remember learning about Rosie as a journalism undergrad student and thinking it was pretty amazing that a fictional character, essentially propaganda through ads and posters, was responsible for this huge movement of women really entering the workforce and being proud of it.
Her sheer grit and determination jumped off the glossy pages of household publications like Ladies’ Home Journal, inspiring women at a time when many viewed their biggest challenge as synchronizing the pot roast with the exact second their hubby would lay his hat on the hall table.
Describe briefly the impact she made and the legacy she left.
The Rosie the Riveter movement increased the number of working American women by 57 percent from 1940 to 1944. That made it 20 million working women, no small feat. Prior to Rosie, the few women who did work held pink-collar jobs such as secretary and nurse. Suddenly, women could be anything: welders, taxi drivers, engineers and steelworkers. By living up to the slogan “Do the job he left behind,” the working women kept the economy pumping back home. Not only were they excelling financially and gaining independence, but they quite literally helped win the war from home.
What’s one thing you think everyone should know about Rosie the Riveter?
There are three “actual” Rosies. The initial idea of Rosie was loosely based on a real government girl, Rose Will Monroe, who moved from small-town Kentucky at age 21 to build Army bombers in Michigan. The woman on the widely recognized Westinghouse poster of Rosie (pictured), entitled “We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, is Michigan factory worker Geraldine Doyle. A few years later, Norman Rockwell depicted Rosie for his 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post, using model Mary Doyle Keefe as inspiration. Keefe was paid $10 for her likeness, which was recently auctioned by Sotheby’s for $5 million.
What were the biggest obstacles she overcame?
Being fictional, Rosie herself had it pretty easy. However, lots of the actual working “government girls,” as they were called, were forced out of their positions once the soldiers started returning home. Propaganda now told them go back to being homemakers to prepare their “after-victory homes” and enjoy spending their proud earnings. But just because Uncle Sam was finished with their husbands didn’t mean that women forgot about Rosie. Though they often were laid off or demoted, the women workers had tasted financial independence and freedom for the first time, and they haven’t let go of it since.
If Rosie were alive today, what do you think she would be doing? What would she think of women’s status today?
For starters, she’d lose the denim coveralls and kerchief. I think she’d be very proud of women in 2008, who fulfill even more diverse roles than they did during the war. She’d probably join Hillary’s campaign and kick it into gear – considering how Rosie was responsible for the most successful advertising recruitment campaign in American history.