Rosie the Riveter: A History

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By David Michael Newstead.

During the Second World War, the War Advertising Council wanted to mobilize American women and get them into the workplace. And while this ultimately contributed to social progress in the United States, the ad campaign was really motivated by necessity more than feelings of equality. At the time, millions of men were leaving to join the military and the jobs they once occupied had to be filled for the country to function and for America to meet the industrial demands of a major war. This meant groups that were normally excluded from and discriminated against in the workforce were now of vital importance. In 1941, for example, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination throughout the nation’s defense industries at a time when segregation was the norm in many parts of the U.S. And if racial bias was understood to be secondary to the war effort, it quickly became clear that entrenched sexism was an obstacle to victory as well. Because of that, the War Advertising Council launched the Women in War Jobs campaign in 1942 and the persona of Rosie the Riveter was born.

When I first sat down to do research on this, I discovered that there was no specific woman who was Rosie the Riveter. Instead, there were actually several women who were either the inspiration for or directly associated with the Rosie the Riveter campaign. Many of them have passed away, but below I attempt to provide an overview of their contributions to this unique chapter in history.

The earliest inspiration for Rosie the Riveter was Veronica Foster who was part of a 1941 Canadian campaign for Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl. Veronica worked at the John Inglis Plant where she helped manufacture machine guns and this idea would serve as a precursor to the more famous Rosie.

The American campaign was first popularized by a hit song in 1942 about a New York resident named Rosalind Walter, a riveter at the Corsair Plant where they built the classic Vought F4U Corsair fighter aircraft. Rosalind worked the night shift and went on to inspire Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb to write the song Rosie the Riveter that year. Later, this song would be performed by various popular musicians of the time such as James Kern Kay Kyser as well as the Vagabond Boys. I include the lyrics below and personally I thought the version of it on YouTube was pretty catchy. Just to clarify, the Brrr throughout the song is a sound effect, mimicking what riveting sounds like.

All the day long whether rain or shine

She’s a part of the assembly line

She’s making history working for victory,

Rosie Brrr the riveter.

Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage

Sitting up there on the fuselage

That little frail can do

More than a male can do,

Rosie Brrr the riveter

Rosie’s got a boyfriend Charlie,

Charlie, he’s a marine

Rosie, is protecting Charlie

Working overtime on the riveting machine.

When they gave her a production “E”

She was a proud as a girl could be,

There’s something true about

Red, white and blue about

Rosie, Brrr the riveter.

Then in 1942 and 1943, two American artists would produce the images that are the most familiar depictions of Rosie the Riveter to modern audiences. The key difference being that one of these pieces was immediately famous, while the other was not widely circulated at the time and only became well-known decades later.

The first was a drawing of Mary Doyle Keefe who lived in Vermont and was the original model for Norman Rockwell’s 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover of Rosie, itself based on Michelangelo’s Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel. Rockwell, who also lived in Vermont, was known for using random people as models for his iconic illustrations and like many other drawings, this is how his Rosie the Riveter came about. Mary posed for Rockwell on two occasions and was paid $10.

The second drawing was of Geraldine Hoff Doyle. This is the now famous We Can Do It poster created by J. Howard Miller, an artist contracted by the Westinghouse Electric Company in Michigan. Geraldine worked as a metal presser there and a photograph of her was used by the company to create an in-house poster to show its employees. At the time, very few copies of this were printed and it was only displayed for about two weeks. Almost no one saw this poster during the Second World War and it was forgotten about for years. But when it was rediscovered in the 1980s, We Can Do It became widely displayed in popular culture and in feminist marches originally due to copyright reasons. Those being, Norman Rockwell’s version is copyrighted and the We Can Do It version is not. Incidentally, this is the same reason that the ubiquitous Che Guevara image is mass produced on t-shirts and posters (It isn’t copyrighted). Because of that, the We Can Do It poster entered into our cultural consciousness almost on accident. Even Geraldine Hoff Doyle herself was completely unaware of her role in the poster’s creation until the early 1980s.

Other incarnations for Rosie the Riveter include Rosie Bonavitas of New York who was recognized in a commendation letter from President Roosevelt in 1943. She had set a productivity record as a riveter for a single six-hour shift, while helping to manufacture a Grumman TBF Avenger Torpedo Bomber. Then in 1944, Rose Will Monroe was working at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan when she was recruited to play the part of Rosie the Riveter in several short films that encouraged people to buy war bonds.

These were the women who can most readily be called Rosie the Riveter. But in a sense, Rosie isn’t and never was just one person. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, there were twenty million other women, toiling away in factories and planting the seeds for social change. My grandmother was one of them. Your grandmother might have been one too. Their names and stories may have varied. And they might not have always fit into the narrative of a national advertising campaign, but their place in history is assured.

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