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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Son of Saul

By David Michael Newstead.

Son of Saul reveals the grueling routine of a Nazi concentration camp from the perspective of a sonderkommando, the select group of prisoners forced to work in the camp until their own execution. The protagonist is a Hungarian Jew named Saul struggling to maintain his humanity against an onslaught of violence and suffering. And throughout the film, the camera focuses in on Saul as the audience closely follows his every movement, emotion, and reaction in this visceral and tragic masterpiece.

The Great Dictator

By David Michael Newstead.

Long before The Interview and the Sony hack, Charlie Chaplin made a satire mocking Adolf Hitler. The Great Dictator is an American film from 1940 starring an English icon and noted leftist. It’s about a Jewish barber (played by Chaplin) who accidentally switches places with a power crazed, anti-Semitic dictator (also played by Chaplin). In real life, the two men obviously looked very similar and had the same moustache style. But it’s also worth noting that Chaplin’s slapstick depiction of Hitler was only slightly more absurd than the Nazi’s actual mannerisms. In fact, the imprisoned war criminal, Albert Speer, later said he considered the film to be the most accurate depiction of Hitler’s behavior. Of course, The Great Dictator was banned in Germany at the time, but Hitler reportedly obtained a copy and watched it on several occasions. And while he never publicly commented on the movie, Adolf Hitler was not exactly known for his ability to take criticism well.

In the aftermath of the Sony hack, it’s natural to wonder what forms of expression will now be at risk from the world’s worst regimes. Today, The Interview is vulnerable to attack in a way that The Great Dictator was not. And the implications in terms of censorship, self-censorship, and fear have lasting significance for Western democracies.

But as much as things have changed since 1940, a few things are the same. Dictators are still frightening, they’re still power crazed, and more than anyone else, they deserved to be mocked.

The Imitation Game

poster-art-for-the-imitation-game_event_mainBy David Michael Newstead.

The Imitation Game shows an unorthodox face to heroism that’s far removed from the Captain America portrayals of World War Two audiences are used to. Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is a British mathematician, a homosexual, and eventually the father of Computer Science. He never sees combat, but his contributions to the war effort are considered a decisive factor in the Allied victory, shortening the conflict by years. By breaking the Nazi Enigma Code, Turing and his team unlocked the crucial military intelligence going back and forth in radio transmissions across Europe — where the Germans would attack and when. Empowered with this information, the Allies were able to steer their actions accordingly and gain a critical edge as the fighting progressed. Winston Churchill would later tell the King of England it’s because of this work that they won the war.

Apart from the conflict though, the film focuses on different points in Turing’s life: when he was bullied as a student and during his prosecution for homosexuality that led to his suicide in 1954. The most interesting discussion in the film comes just before his death and it concerns his desire to be normal and ultimately how Turing’s uniqueness has been such a benefit to mankind: the Allied victory, the development of computers.

But as a victim of prejudice, decades would pass before the truth about Turing’s actions came to light. This culminated in a royal pardon from Queen Elizabeth in 2013 and to the making of the film itself, which is all the more reason to watch. The acknowledgement in The Imitation Game has been a long time coming.

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Burma Boy

By David Michael Newstead.

Media coverage about West Africa is rarely positive and recent news from the region has been no exception. But this month, a new book by Barnaby Phillips highlights the significant contributions of West African soldiers to the Second World War.

Recruited by the British, these young men were nicknamed Burma Boys since many of them were shipped off to fight against the Japanese in the jungles of Burma. They came from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, and the Gambia as well as other British colonies in Africa. In total, almost 100,000 Africans took part in this effort, half of them from Nigeria. Because only 20% of the British Army in Burma was made up of Europeans, colonial recruits like those from Africa and India were vital to success. But due to the racial realities of the 1940’s, their sacrifice went largely unnoticed. And over the years, this story of African military service has been forgotten.

Ultimately, what helped revive the legacy of the Burma Boys was a detailed account written by one Nigerian veteran named Isaac Fadoyebo. His memoir, A Stroke of Unbelievable Luck, is the only firsthand account of the campaign from an African soldier and it serves as the basis for the 2011 documentary, The Burma Boy. This award-winning film (also by Barnaby Phillips) traces the human connections formed during World War Two, locating a handful of surviving participants of the Burma campaign. This includes British officers, Japanese soldiers, an elderly Isaac Fadoyebo, and the rural Burmese family that sheltered two wounded West Africans during the height of the conflict. One was from Sierra Leone. The other was a young Nigerian named Isaac.

The Burma Boy is one of the most fascinating documentaries I’ve ever seen, covering three continents and one man’s life story. Barnaby Phillips’ new book, Another Man’s War, builds on that research and honors the legacy of soldiers like Isaac Fadoyebo. To learn more about West Africans in the Second World War, check out the links below.