Who Was Rosie The Riveter?


This Rosie the Riveter image is widely recognized as a symbol of female empowerment and the feminist movement. It was originally a poster made to encourage the newly working women at the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company during WWII. The poster was made by J. Howard Miller and was inspired by a photograph of 17-year old Geraldine Doyle working in a Michigan factory. Ironically, Geraldine quit after two weeks, afraid that she might be injured and unable to play the cello. It was common for women to quit after just a short time of factory work.

This poster was on the walls of the factory for a mere 2 weeks and very few people in 1942 saw it. In the 1980s, feminists chose the image to promote the concept that women were capable of doing anything—it had already happened in their mother’s or grandmother’s generation. The poster had the added advantage of no copyright restrictions. It has since been reproduced endlessly on posters, coffee mugs, and t-shirts and by modern day imitators.

Beyonce as Rosie the Riveter

In 1942, the first mention of Rosie the Riveter came from a song. Listen to it on the video below. During WWII, 12% of the population was tied up in the military, mostly young men. At the same time, manufacturing was ramped up with the huge demand for war material. It was obvious to try to recruit women to the low-skilled jobs men would normally have filled. The Rosie the Riveter song was written by Red Evans and John Jacob Loeb as propaganda to draw women into the workforce.

When Norman Rockwell created the first Rosie the Riveter image for the 1943 Memorial Day cover of the Saturday Evening Post, many Americans would have made the association with the song. Rockwell’s Rosie had a more masculine body form than both his model or other war time images of the era. His model was a VT telephone operator, then 19-year old Mary Doyle Keefer. It was so popular that permission was given to the Treasury department to use it for advertising War Bonds. This was the version of Rosie the Riveter that the WWII era was familiar with.

What Was Life Like for the Real Rosies?

There was a real need to recruit women into these war manufacturing jobs, but there was also ambivalence about women in the role. Recruiters were encouraged to only hire young, single women or older women with grown children. It was felt that only a mother could properly care for her children. Ambivilence was also demonstrated in the imagery of women in these jobs, always including reminders of femininity. Even Rockwell’s more masculine image showed Rosie with make-up and a frilly handkerchief poking out of her pocket. When one young woman emerged from her physically demanding job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, an older woman walking down the street had to have her say, as can be heard in this oral history :

In Looking For Rosie: Women Defense Workers in the Brooklyn Navy Yard by Arnold Spar, we learn that all “war service” appointees were hired for the duration and 6 months afterwards. This included the thousands of women, at a peak of 4,659 in 1945- almost 8% of the workforce- hired into traditionally male jobs in the manufacture, repair and refitting of ships. Prior to the war, there were only ~100 women who worked in the flag shop, making the flags and pennants flown on the ships.

These new women were given basic training as welders, electricians, pipe fitters, sheet metal workers, truck drivers, and crane operators. More advanced training was reserved for men unless the women were willing to go to classes outside of their 10 hour, 6 day work weeks. Few did. The shops with the greatest influx of women were the Shopfitters (doing preassembly of pieces for the ships) and Ordnance (assembling the gunsights). It wasn’t until June 1944 that a few women with advanced ratings in welding, electrical and sheetmetal work were allowed to work directly on the ships. Few women were promoted into management and then they were only allowed to supervise other women.

A woman operating a turret lathe (1942), Howard R. Hollem

By 1944 there was a separate clothing shop on site with the safety clothing and shoes in women’s sizes needed for their work. They were required to cover their hair with caps, wear regulation overalls and low heeled shoes. Because so many women left the job in the first 2 weeks, female counselors were hired to help the women adjust and increase retention. Over the war years, women began to prove themselves competent in the jobs and even had a better safety record with almost half the number of work related injuries per million man hours.

A “Wendy the Welder” at the Richmond Shipyards, Ann Rosener, U.S. Office of War Information

After The War

Because they all knew the jobs were temporary when hired, many women left as the war was winding down. The Yard was still producing aircraft carriers and had a particularly difficult time keeping enough staff in 1945. When the men began coming home, that all changed. Laws gave preferences to returning veterans and by 1946 even the flag shop had an all male staff. In August of 1947 the Yard was 64% veteran. None of the women hired into traditionally male roles remained.

Women were expected to do their duty and then step back into their traditional female roles. Staying in one of those jobs would have meant taking a job away from one of the servicemen who risked their lives for freedom. Some women were happy to return to their previous jobs and homemaker roles, but a poll showed the majority would have preferred to keep their jobs. It took the feminist movement and the second iconic Rosie to lead to more permanent changes in women’s employment.

Donna Barten is a novelist and scientist awaiting publication of her debut novel, Breathing Water.