To celebrate Women’s History Month (March) and International Women’s Day (3/8/2021), Parentology is spotlighting inspiring women for 2021. We call it Redefining Rosie: Cool Women, Uncommon Jobs. But why did we choose Rosie to be our icon for this campaign and what is the real history of Rosie the Riveter?
For many Americans, the name “Rosie the Riveter” brings to mind a bold portrait featuring a dark-haired woman with her blue shirt-sleeves rolled up, flexing her bicep while proclaiming, “We Can Do It!”.
“It really is the symbol of a strong, independent, capable woman,” Brad Bunnin of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historic Park told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s simple, it’s colorful, it can’t be misunderstood.”
The famous photo is taught as part of history, feminism, and visual arts classes around the world, so it was a natural fit with our spotlight on inspiring women for 2020. But fans of Rosie often neglect to notice that the heroine’s name is nowhere to be found.
Rosie the Riveter History
Rosie the Riveter is a good example of a pre-internet viral meme that was brought to life by the popular culture of World War II-era Americans. The iconic illustration most people know is actually a recruiting advertisement for Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing. Created in the early 1940s by artist J. Howard Miller, the series of 40 images encouraged women to join the workforce and war effort.
It wasn’t until 1943 that the name Rosie came into the fold. First to hit the scene was the “Rosie the Riveter” song created for Paramount Music, which was performed extensively for television and radio throughout the WWII era.
Shortly after the song began to gain popularity, famed illustrator Norman Rockwell created an illustration for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post featuring an industrial working woman with a riveting machine in her lap, holding a lunch box with the name “Rosie” emblazoned across the top. This catapulted the Rosie character into the forefront of American popular culture — the effects of which we still see today.
Inspiring War-Time Heroes
The Rosie the Riveter campaign was considered a great success, with more than five million civilian women inspired to join industrial and commercial organizations in the early 1940s.
With new roles in society came adjustments to the social norms — including fashion styles and traditional attitudes. Up until this point women were largely expected to stay at home and tend to children, cook, and clean.
During World War II, women were celebrated for taking on tasks traditionally assigned to men. These women set a new precedent for women everywhere by producing tanks, ships, and airplanes for the military. Their contribution is considered one of the key factors in the United States’ ultimate victory and is still studied in history classes today.
Was There a Real Rosie the Riveter?
That depends on what you mean by “real.” During World War II several women were associated with Rosie in various ways. One was Rosalind P. Walter, a welder in Bridgeport, Connecticut who inspired songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb to write the “Rosie the Riveter” song in 1942. Sadly, Walter passed away this year after a life of service and philanthropy.
As for the “We Can Do It!” image, it’s been widely speculated that a photo of aircraft assembly worker Naomi Parker Fraley inspired Rosie’s look. Experts believe Miller used an image of her as inspiration for his poster in 1943.
Meanwhile, some women were granted the mantle of Rosie after the fact. In 1943, aircraft riveter Rosie Bonavita and her partner set a speed record for assembling a certain plane. By that time the song had already become popular, so naturally the press couldn’t resist giving Bonavita the nickname.
A year later, as actor Walter Pidgeon prepared to make a film promoting war bonds, he got wind of a riveter named Rose Will Monroe working at a plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Sensing an opportunity, Pidgeon included Monroe in his film as Rosie, and she remained identified with the character from then on.
A Lasting Legacy
Rosie became a symbol of female empowerment — inspiring art imitations, costumes, and even her own Barbie doll.
Today, the Rosie the Riveter story continues to inspire girls and women around the world to pursue uncommon jobs and roles in male-dominated industries. Her unique style and tough attitude still resonate, with Rosie-inspired bandanas seen at Women’s Day marches and continuing the spirit of the strong, bold female.
She continues to spread a simple, yet powerful, message: “We Can Do It!”