Geraldine Doyle, who died in 2011 at 86, believed she was the face of a movement, noting that her fame was very unexpected. In 1942, Doyle was working in a factory when a photographer snapped her photo. Unbeknownst to her, an artist, J. Howard Miller, used the photograph as the basis for the “We Can Do It!” poster. The artist added in the inspirational pumped arm and clenched fist. Others believe that either Rose Will Monroe or Naomi Parker was the basis for this painting. We know Doyle, Monroe, and/or Parker as Rosie the Riveter, who represents American folklore more so than an individual woman. Other artistic representations of women in the WWII workforce were created, such as Norman Rockwell’s painting, but the “We Can Do It” poster is one of the most replicated, including Halloween costumes or renderings that change physical attributes of Rosie, like adding tattoos (Garber, 2015; Epstein, 2015). It may be because the Miller painting is more feminine, since the Rockwell piece, according to Harvey (2010), depicts Rosie as “big and dirty. She's oversized, with working-class brawn. She wears goggles and holds a shield. In reality, it's unlikely that she would have worn both.” The other reason may be that the Norman Rockwell Estate has heavily restricted reproductions of the Rockwell painting.
Similar posters to the “We Can Do It” painting were used in WWII to convince women that it was okay to leave their homes and join the workforce in the name of helping their country. However, this poster was actually created in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric, to boost the morale of female workers already in the wartime workforce. The message was simple: women can do the same jobs as men (and are doing them well). Rosie’s striking blue eyes, brunette hair, and pale skin, mixed with the symbolic strength represented by her uniform and muscles, gave her an overly feminine appearance with a tinge of masculinity. In part, this may have made the “We Can Do It!” poster more palatable to those who held onto traditional gender spheres. Rosie could work in the factory and help her nation, as long as she was still beautiful at the end of the day. This poster is an example of advertising strategies still used in 2016 because it appeals to beauty and patriotism—two commonly touted core American values. Married women who worked outside the home were still expected to run their homes with efficiency and cheer. Middle class women were impacted the most as it was already very common for poor women to find outside work while raising their children (Harvey, 2010).
That said, Rosie’s choice to roll up her sleeves has taken on a life beyond WWII propaganda. The message of female capabilities could no longer be regulated to war time. Women wanted a permanent place in the workforce. Even after the male soldiers returned to their jobs, inspired young women wanted and, in many cases, needed to keep working to support themselves or their families. The Rosie poster told women that they can and should work, but those same women were then quickly rejected when the war ended. Time to return to home and make babies was the message. For example, Inez Sauer, a tool clerk for Boeing stated in an interview with the Library of Congress:
My mother warned me when I took the job that I would never be the same. She said, 'You will never want to go back to being a housewife.' At that time I didn't think it would change a thing. But she was right, it definitely did. . . . at Boeing I found a freedom and an independence that I had never known. After the war I could never go back to playing bridge again, being a club woman . . . when I knew there were things you could use your mind for. The war changed my life completely. I guess you could say, at thirty-one, I finally grew up (as cited in Harvey, 2010).
Wallace (2011) notes how exploited many of the six million women who entered the workforce in the name of patriotism may have felt when they were dropped in favor of their male counterparts. Wallace adds that the 12 million women who were already in the workforce prior to WWII also felt the harshness of the reversed message. The encouragement to enter the workforce emboldened the women who had already committed to work outside the home, but that positive feeling was soon replaced as women were once again vilified for seeking purpose outside of domesticity and for taking jobs from hard working (male) Americans.
Rosie’s face as a representation of the intersectional relationship between feminism and the labor movement is a solid reminder that socioeconomic factors heavily influence gender norms and vice versa. At the Madison Women’s March on January 21, 2017, 75,000 plus individuals heard a female journeyman describe her experiences as one of the only female employees during her apprenticeship. During this time, she realized that her labor union would be one of the few ways where she could demand equal treatment for women in a male-dominated field. The “We Can Do It” poster must be only one in a plethora of intersectional feminist imagery lest race, sexuality, disabilities, and nationality be ignored from the conversation. Recently, the United States’ Department of the Treasury announced that the new $100.00 gold coin would feature Lady Liberty as a black woman. The recent Women’s March also featured a portrait of a Muslim American woman wrapped in the American flag, which, while the use of the American flag in artwork is often controversial, demonstrated that diversity must be part of the feminist movement and the American story.
In closing, Garber (2015) mentions that Rosie has endured as an American legend because she “belongs to all of us” and because women all want to be Rosie—to feel empowered and to make their own choices. Therefore, the women who want to be Rosie have taken control of a message that was once created to help Americans win a war, not for women to win equality. Rosie’s patriotism is also appealing as a symbolic connection, showing that equality goes hand-in-hand with love of country. American feminists have seen a glimmer of their own lives in Rosie’s brawn and smile and their perception that Rosie, like the modern woman, does not not want to be defined by her femininity but by her humanity. This may also be why at least three women believe they were the inspiration of “We Can Do It!”
Epstein, Adam. “The Woman Who Inspired ‘Rosie the Riveter’ Has Died.” Quartz, April 23, 2015. http://qz.com/389794/the-woman-who-inspired-rosie-the-riveter-has-died-at-92/
Garber, Megan. “The Many Faces of Rosie the Riveter.” Atlantic, April 24, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/the-many-faces-of-rosie-the-riveter/391364/
Harvey, Sheridan. “Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in WWII.” Library of Congress, July 20, 2010. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/rosie-transcript.html
Wallace, Lane. “The Complex Legacy of Rosie the Riveter.” Atlantic, January 11, 2011. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/01/the-complex-legacy-of-rosie-the-riveter/69268/
“We Can Do It!” by J. Howard Miller, Office for Emergency Management. War Production Board. 1/1942-11/3/1945. Retrieved from the National Archives, NWDNS-179-WP-1563, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/535413.