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Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the RiveterRosie the Riveter powered the “Arsenal of Democracy”, and defeated the forces of Hitlerite fascism. Victory came to the Allies, with the ability to produce more, vastly more, arms and munitions than the Axis. After 1940 German munitions production rose only slowly, whereas Allied production multiplied. Employment of German women, both in the economy as a whole and in industry in particular, barely rose between 1939 and 1943. In Great Britain, in contrast, between 1939 and 1943 the increase in female employment (2.2 million) was almost six times the increase in the total working population. The Nazis valued traditional roles for women above winning the war, which they lost.

While American men were serving in the armed forces, there were huge gaps in the industrial labor forces. Factory work and wage labor were not new for many of these women. But the substantial shift of female workers from things like domestic service into industrial work, and an expansion of the range of tasks within factories and other workspaces, was unprecedented.

When the United States entered the Second World War, "Rosie the Riveter" became the symbol for women workers in the American defense industries. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ embodied the ‘We can do it’ spirit forever connected with the famous poster. The diversion of men from the labor pool into the military, as well as the increased production needed to support the war effort, prompted the federal War Manpower Commission and the Office of War Information to undertake a nationwide campaign to recruit women into the labor force.

From 1940 to 1945, the number of female workers rose by 50 percent, from 12 million to 18 million. In 1940, women constituted 8 percent of total workers employed in the production of durable goods. By 1945, this number increased to 25 percent. During World War II, women across the country left their homes for factory jobs in support of the war effort: Working as riveters, buckers, welders, and electricians.

During the war years, women became streetcar conductors, taxicab drivers, business managers, commercial airline checkers, aerodynamic engineers, and railroad workers. Women operated machinery, streetcars, buses, cranes, and tractors. They unloaded freight, built dirigibles and gliders, worked in lumber mills and steel mills, and made munitions. In essence, women occupied almost every aspect of industry.

Rosie the RiveterBetween 1940 and 1945, the percent of women in the workforce jumped from 27% to nearly 37%, and by the end of the war, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. These ‘Rosie the Riveters’ took positions across various industries, but the aviation industry saw the biggest increase of female workers – with more than 310,000 working in the aircraft industry in 1943, representing 65% of its workforce.

In 1942, as World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific and the song "Rosie the Riveter" filled radio waves across the home front, manufacturing giant Westinghouse commissioned artist J. Howard Miller to make a series of posters to promote the war effort. One such poster featured the image of a woman with her hair wrapped up in a red polka-dot scarf, rolling up her sleeve and flexing her bicep. At the top of the poster, the words ‘We Can Do It!' are printed in a blue caption bubble. To many people, this image is "the" Rosie the Riveter. But it was never the intention to make this image "Rosie," nor did many Americans think of her as "Rosie." The connection of Miller's image and "Rosie" is a recent phenomenon.

The "Rosie" image popular during the war was created by illustrator Norman Rockwell (who had most certainly heard the "Rosie the Riveter" song) for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943 — the Memorial Day issue. The image depicts a muscular woman wearing overalls, goggles and pins of honor on her lapel. She sports a leather wrist band and rolled-up sleeves. She sits with a riveting tool in her lap, eating a sandwich, and "Rosie" is inscribed on her lunch pail. And she's stepping on a copy of Adolph Hitler's book "Mein Kampf." Rockwell based the pose to match the prophet Isaiah in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. After the war, numerous requests were made for the Saturday Evening Post image of Rosie the Riveter, but Curtis Publishing, the owner of the Post, refused all requests. The publishing company was possibly concerned that the composers of the song "Rosie the Riveter" would hold them liable for copyright infringement.

Rockwell’s model was a Vermont resident, then 19-year-old Mary Doyle Keefe who was a telephone operator near where Rockwell lived, not a riveter. Although Keefe was petite, Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter had large arms, hands and shoulders. Rockwell painted his “Rosie” as a larger woman than his model, and he later phoned to apologize. Mary Doyle Keefe died 22 april 2015. She was 92.

The woman believed to be the other “Rosie the Riveter” died in January 2018 at the age of 96. Naomi Parker Fraley inspired the iconic war poster of a young factory worker clad in a work shirt and bandana and flexing her bicep. Parker Fraley was photographed in 1942 turning a lathe in a U.S. Navy machine shop in California. An artist who had spotted the photo in a newspaper turned it into the vivid poster a year later, adding the words “WE CAN DO IT!” Parker Fraley’s identity remained a mystery for years, until a scholarly sleuth tracked down the original photo. She basked in the late-life attention and was proud to have inspired new generations of women at work.

Many wartime opportunities for women proved temporary, and women were returned to domestic roles after the war to make employment opportunities for returning soldiers. But this return to traditional roles also proved temporary, as by the 1960s the women's movement decisively transformed the role of women in American society.

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Page last modified: 09-03-2019 12:06:49 ZULU