A Fond Farewell to Rosie the Riveter

Rosie died last month. More precisely, Mary Doyle Keefe passed away on 21 April 2015 at the age of 92. Mary Doyle was the model for Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” painting, which appeared on the cover of the Memorial Day, 29 May 1943 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. In the US, Rosie came to stand for the women who were part of the labor force, particularly in industrial jobs, during World War II. Often, when people picture Rosie now, they think of the “We Can Do It!” image. Ask most people on the street why Rosie the Riveter is important, and you are likely to get the same sort of responses that I did when I tried it. “Women started working in World War II, so they became more confident.” “The US needed women to work because the men were at war, and women proved that they were as good as men.” “Something about World War II, and women and work.” The real picture, just like the original Rosie cover, is more complicated, and much more interesting.

First, women have always worked. Women in the US worked for wages before WWII. This should not be in doubt, but it still seems to come as a surprise sometimes. If you haven’t thought much about it, you 1943-rosie-riv-satevepost-nwmight try reading about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, or black women’s labor in the South after the Civil War, or the involvement of Latinas in the labor disputes of the 1930s. The kind of work that any particular woman was able to get, and the responses to her involvement in waged labor, depended on larger social and political attitudes about race, class, age, marriage and family. During the Depression, government and corporate policy actively discouraged married women, in particular, from working, under the (generally mistaken) impressions that they would take jobs away from men, and that their families could survive on their husband’s wages alone.

The remarkable thing about World War II was the about-face in policy that the government and media took toward women, especially married women, in the workforce. There was a concerted effort to get women into, rather than out of, paid work in the now booming war economy. Not only did the number of women who were employed rise dramatically, and the antipathy to married women working drop precipitously, but women who had already been employed often were able to move into higher paying jobs that had previously been reserved solely for men. So there is truth to the “something about women, work and empowerment” impression that my interviewees had, but there was also a catch. I'mProudGovernment and popular media collaborated on an active propaganda campaign to get women to fill out the workforce, but they framed it as the temporary, patriotic duty of women to do “men’s jobs” while the men were off being soldiers. Although women were told that they “could do it,” they were also told to be ready, when the war ended, to give it up and go back home.

This is the context in which Rosie the Riveter came into being. The now famous “We Can Do It!” poster was produced, probably around 1942, by J. Howard Miller, an artist at Westinghouse. She wasn’t known as Rosie, and, in fact, wasn’t widely seen at the time, at all. The Saturday Evening Post, on the other hand, had a circulation of about four million in the 1940s, and they printed extra issues when Norman Rockwell was the cover artist. Rosie was a Rockwell. So why has the familiarity of these two images flipped in the decades since they were created? The Rockwell / Post picture had copyright restrictions which limited its publication after the war, the image by the little known Pittsburg artist, Miller, did not.

Rockwell’s Rosie exudes strength. She doesn’t need a slogan to tell us that she can do it, her body and demeanor convey that clearly. As it happens, Rockwell modeled Rosie’s physique and pose on Michelangelo’s Isaiah from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. He even positioned her work visor (redundant, as she is already wearing goggles) to suggest a halo. Of course he also put a ham We_Can_Do_It!sandwich in her hand. Rosie’s dedication to work and country may be otherworldly, but Rosie, herself, couldn’t be more down to earth. In fact, it is the solidity of her arms and neck that first strike most viewers, and go a long way to conveying her power and effectiveness in a “man’s” job.

One of my daughter’s high school history teachers insisted that Rockwell used Michelangelo’s work as a model because “no woman could be that large and strong.” I would love to introduce him to some of my friends. While he is wrong on the merits, his opinion is relevant because it springs from the equation of masculinity with strength and capability, and the associated fear that working (white) women would lose their femininity, which war-time propaganda and advertising paradoxically both fought and reinforced. Rockwell, himself, sent his model, Mary Doyle, a letter twenty-four years after she posed, in which he apologized for bulking her up, and assured her that she was one of the IsaiahRosiemost beautiful women he had ever seen. The implication is clear. When needed for the sake of the country, a powerful woman’s body could be beautiful, but under other circumstances feminine beauty and physical size and strength were at odds.

Rockwell put deliberate reassurances of Rosie’s femininity into the painting. She has a powder compact and a handkerchief peaking out of her pocket almost perfectly at the center of the picture, and closely juxtaposed to the massive riveting gun. Her hands and forearms look like they are smudged with grime, and she wears a leather wristguard, but her cheeks and lips are rosy. We have no way of knowing whether, as some writers suggest, she is meant to be wearing rouge and lipstick, but it wouldn’t be surprising if she were. Advertisers were quick to capitalize on the pressure for women to both work and conform to beauty standards.

Rosie’s clothes were carefully orchestrated, as well. While her overalls might not seem remarkable TangeeLipsticknow, at the time they were a significant indicator of her step into industry. Prior to the war, women rarely wore trousers in public. In the first photo shoot (Rockwell preferred to work from photos*, rather than life) Mary Doyle wore a white shirt and saddle shoes. Rockwell asked her to come back for another shoot the next day because he wanted to substitute a blue shirt and penny loafers. Those shoes, resting decisively and disdainfully on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, are also surprisingly informative. Women generally wore their own shoes to work, and prior to July of 1943 most women couldn’t get the kind of metal-toed safety shoes worn in heavy industry in their sizes. Manufacturers had seen no reason to make them.
* Sadly, the original photos were lost when Rockwell’s studio burned down in the summer of 1943.

The symbolism of the American flag that forms the background is unmistakeable, but Rosie is wearing other signs of patriotism, as well, among them pins for victory, blood donation, and her security badge. Finally, there’s her lunchbox. Why did Rockwell choose the name Rosie to put on the tin box? Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb wrote a song called “Rosie the Riveter” in 1942, and released it early in 1943, a few months before Rockwell made the painting for the Saturday Evening Post. It played on radios across the nation, and was performed live by a number of bands. A version by the African American group, the Four Vagabonds, was especially popular. Naming the Riveter he created from the 19 year old telephone operator who modeled for him, Rosie, would have struck the final, patriotic note.

Rosie’s got a boyfriend, Charlie
Charlie, he’s a MarineWorkingOnBomber
Rosie is protecting Charlie
Working overtime on the
riveting machine
When they gave her a production “E”
She was as proud as a girl could be
There’s something true about
Red, white, and blue about
Rosie the Riveter

You can read all of the lyrics here, or listen to the Four Vagabonds’ rendition. Just be warned that you may end up humming it for the rest of the day.

Bonus Challenge: Who is posed for the “Rosie” photo below? (I’ll post the answer in a week, or when someone guesses correctly – and I see it – whichever comes first.)


sources and references:

books: (both are about more than World War II and Rosie, but they are well worth reading)

Tonya Bolden, 2002, 33 Things Every Girl Should Know About Women’s History. (for young people and adults)
Elaine Tyler May, 2008, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. (for adults)

obituaries for Mary Doyle Keefe from the Hartford Courant, the BBC, and the Norman Rockwell Museum.

Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II by Sheridan Harvey.

Rosie the Riveter from the North Carolina Digital History Archives.

The Rosie the Riveter Story from the Norman Rockwell Museum.

When Beauty Was A Duty: Cosmetic Appeal During WWII by Caitlin L.




featured image: Riveter at work on Consolidated bomber, Consolidated Aircraft Corp., Fort Worth, Texas.
Saturday Evening Post Rosie cover.
I’m proud … my husband wants me to do my part See your U.S. Employment Service.
We Can Do It!
Isaia and Rosie.
Tangee Lipstick ad, “Doing your bit…and a little bit more!”
Women at work on a bomber, 1942.
credit for WWII girl coming later.
Operating a hand drill at Vultee-Nashville, woman is working on a “Vengeance” dive bomber, Tennessee.
Another skilled worker “enlists” for the duration. When the Kentucky watch case factory for whom she has worked twenty years converted to war production, this lady was ready to join the procession of war workers. Wadsworth Watch Company, Louisville, Kentucky


Cerys Gruffyydd

Cerys has gone through a genetics phase (undergrad years), a biological anthropology phase (grad school years) and a Pilates & yoga teaching phase (mum years). She lives with a scientist, a teenager and a rabbit. Her quasi-secret passion is historical costuming and she can’t look at people without imagining the era in which she would like to clothe them.

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  1. In answer to your challenge, isn’t that Norma Jean Baker? If I recall correctly, that photographer encouraged her to become a model.

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