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Complicating Rosie the Riveter

The roles of American women during World War II were much more complicated than the iconic Rosie the Riveter image suggests. The popular poster does, however, serve as an intriguing starting point for discussing a more complex history, one which reveals ongoing attempts by those in authority to rein in disruptive and unruly women.

The Rosie image itself—the J. Howard Miller “We Can Do It!” poster—wasn’t created to celebrate the female factory workers that Americans were already referring to as Rosie the Riveter. The Westinghouse Electric Company hired Miller in 1942 to create posters that would discourage its workers from skipping their shifts and from organizing strikes. One of Miller’s posters featured 17-year old Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who was working as a metal presser in a Michigan defense factory when a UPI wire service photographer snapped her picture.

Miller’s illustration, based on that photo, emphasized Doyle’s beauty rather than her skills. There are no tools or equipment in the image, only a lovely young woman with a look of pride and determination on her face. The poster, with its slogan “We Can Do It!” was displayed in-house at Westinghouse for two weeks in February 1943. It didn’t become associated with Rosie the Riveter until several decades later, after the postwar women’s movement pushed along the changes in women’s lives that had begun during the war. Since the 1980s, Miller’s Rosie image has been reproduced on everything from coffee mugs to mouse pads.

"Rosie the Riveter" by War Production Board. Public Domain via The National Archives Catalog.
“Rosie the Riveter” by War Production Board. Public Domain via The National Archives Catalog.

During the war years, the image of Rosie the Riveter that Americans were most familiar with appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943. Using a photograph of a petite red-haired telephone operator named Mary Keefe as his model and inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling painting of the prophet Isiah, Norman Rockwell drew a muscular female riveter surrounded by the tools of her trade, her foot resting nonchalantly but firmly on a copy of Mein Kampf while she ate a sandwich from the lunchbox that bore her name, Rosie. The illustration was used throughout the rest of the war to promote war bond sales, serving as a reminder that this gender role change (and the resulting masculinized features) were only for the duration of the war.

Miller’s poster, featuring an attractive young woman and boasting the zippy “We Can Do It!” slogan, presents a comfortable, comforting image of how Americans prefer to remember women’s contributions to the war. It’s too complicated to remember why the real reason the poster was created in the first place: women weren’t submissive, obedient workers. They didn’t behave like “proper” women.

The real Rosies of World War II—almost all American women, in fact—challenged existing gender conventions at every turn. For the first time in their lives, millions of women heeded the call to step into the work force for reasons that included but were not specific to patriotism. In general, those jobs provided more opportunities, independence, and pay than peacetime employment. They understood the value of their labor and expected to be treated and paid accordingly. Yet at work women endured sexual harassment from male co-workers who resented their presence and their competence. Women of color encountered the racial discrimination endemic in American society, and were often not hired for well-paying factory jobs despite the great need for labor.

"Soldiers without Guns" by War Production Board. Public Domain via The National Archives Catalog.
“Soldiers without Guns” by War Production Board. Public Domain via The National Archives Catalog.

Race also dictated assumptions about patriotism. Thousands of women of Japanese descent living on the West Coast never had the chance to work at a war production factory. Instead, they were compelled to demonstrate their loyalty to the US government and prove they weren’t security threats by submitting to internment for the duration of the war. They were reminded over and over that they couldn’t be “real” Americans, despite having been born in the United States, because their ancestors were from Japan.

As women changed their lives to meet the realities of a wartime society, businesses reminded them of their traditional roles. Every day women were barraged with advertising images that linked the ideals of beauty and femininity (increasingly identified as white, young, and middle-class) to patriotism. To be a good American woman during the war meant using certain cosmetics and buying particular clothes to please the man in your life. Fears that women exercised too much control over their own sexuality while their men were off fighting the war resulted in public campaigns to shame “Victory Girls” and force them to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases.

Allowing women the traditionally male prerogative of demonstrating their patriotism through military service also upset the gendered status quo during the war. As women joined the newly created Women’s Army Corps, their sexual lives were scrutinized by politicians and military officials who worried that WACs were either over-sexed heterosexuals or “deviant” lesbians. Some of these women, especially the military nurses who served overseas, were celebrated as heroines or as angels for the sacrifices they made to tend to sick and injured soldiers. Emphasizing the angelic nature of the overseas nurses’ work diverted attention from the fact that they were at or very close to the front lines, areas which traditionally marked the dividing line between men’s military duties and women’s civilian, domestic ones.

Throughout World War II, American women crossed dividing lines, whether on the job in a factory, at home with their families, out in public socializing, or in uniform to work for Uncle Sam. They challenged gender conventions and succeeded in changing their own lives. To understand all of that, we have to critically examine Rosie the Riveter, not take her at face value.

Image Credit: “Group of Women Service Air Force Service Pilots and B17 Fortress Flying” by US Air Force. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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