Rosie the Riveter: What You Think You Know

Rosie the Riveter, that iconic WWII image, in recent years has become a pervasive symbol in the view of women’s history. We see her as a reinterpretation of a classic poster, which is viewed as a number of things: a labor recruitment poster commissioned by the government to motivate millions of housewives into the vacated positions left by their husbands; a design by Norman Rockwell, which he later revised and put onto the Saturday Evening Post; a poster, famous in her time, made even more so by modern recollections. However, there is one problem with this feminist icon.

All of the aforementioned “facts” are wrong.

We can address the historical inaccuracies of these prevailing views by first learning some of the true history behind the initial Rosie, pictured above. This poster/character was designed by J. Howard Miller, an artist commissioned by the company Westinghouse Electric for a series of 42-posters to be displayed in their factories. This poster was only displayed for a period of two weeks in February 1943. Norman Rockwell’s version, pictured later in this piece, was the image that itself became famous during the war.

One of the perceived facts was that millions housewives were recruited for jobs during the war. Eventually, housewives did join the fray, but initially the women to answer the call were single women already employed in the labor force, who probably joined out of a want for better wages. The thought that this poster could inspire millions of women is too much of a stretch. This poster was not displayed nearly long enough to have any effect on the population, and due to wartime restraints, the general public could never view this poster, displayed only in the workers’ areas of Westinghouse plants. Miller’s poster’s supposed fame during WWII is wholly inaccurate.

The belief that this was a government-issued poster is also problematic. Miller was neither a government employee, nor was the job at the publishing house he worked for commissioned by the government. As seen in the original poster, it is easy how one might think that this was commissioned by the government. The “War Production Co-Ordinating Committee” does sound official, but in reality, it was just another board run by Westinghouse.

Even the “empowering” imagery can be called into question. Despite the fact that she is supposed to be a riveter (which, by the way, none were employed, neither man nor woman, by Westinghouse at this time), she still glaringly wears her femininity on her rolled-up sleeve, with eyeliner, mascara, lipstick, and well-kept hair to clash against her jumpsuit. The pose that she strikes is one steeped in a Westinghouse tradition. All of their workers, regardless of sex, struck this pose, viewed as a symbol of unity and loyalty to the company.

Essentially, what we see here is what can happen when we view history through the lens of empowerment. By blindly reinterpreting images, we stand the risk to “represent a past that never was” (Kimble 562). As we examine women’s history, including all the media, propaganda, writings, and any other piece of evidence we might come across, it’s important to step back and examine our methods and frames with which we judge the past. Rosie still retains her image as a strong woman, given either Miller’s or Rockwell’s designs, but our view of her may change once we take into account exactly what happened (or did not happen) with the original Rosie.

Thank you to James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olsen, who wrote the original article and did the pertinent research, where I found this information.

Jordan Clapper

Kimble, James J. and Lester C. Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 9.4 (Winter 2006): 533-69. Project MUSE. Web. 15 Sept. 2013.


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