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Rosie The Riveter Was A Tough Gal, But Not A Feminist Icon


Rosie the Riveter has become one of the world’s most well-known icons. Kimberly Bloom Jackson wrote a powerful piece about this remarkable woman last week at The Federalist, explaining how she helped win the West’s war against fascism. There is more to her interesting story that every American should know.

The rolled-up sleeves of her heavy denim work shirt. Her slender arm flexed, fist clenched in an unmistakable “don’t mess with me” pose. Her factory employee button alongside her finely manicured nails. Her hair bundled up in her trademark bandana, crowning her pretty and meticulously made up face. She’s at once hard, strong, beautiful, and unmistakably feminine, a seeming contradiction all in one delicate frame.

But she’s not who you think she is. She is most certainly not the feminist icon she’s been coopted into becoming, and would be none too happy with those who have done the coopting. She was actually the exact opposite of the angry feminists who use her. Let me tell that story.

The Origins of Rosie the Riveter

Our gal was created in 1942 by artist J. Howard Miller, who produced her under contract for Westinghouse, a manufacturing company. She was not a revolutionary statement, but simply one of a series of motivational posters to boost team spirit, factory productivity, and safety, and to deter strikes. The directions to shop managers to “Post Feb. 15 to Feb. 28” appear in its bottom left corner. Thus it was seen for only two weeks, exclusively by Westinghouse employees of its Midwest operations. That’s not many people at all. She was really unknown at the time and remained so until the mid-1980s.

Despite how she is referenced today, she is not Rosie the Riveter. Westinghouse didn’t rivet anything. The Rosie that people knew and loved was Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter.” (Note her halo, her curious “man arms,” and the title of the book she is crushing beneath her foot.) She was even feted in this snappy and popular tune of the era.

The “We” in “We Can Do It!” is not a collective, feminist “we.” “We” was the Westinghouse’s employees, male and female. The “It” was meeting the order quotas for each factory, each day. Her flexed arm and clenched fist? It was certainly not a revolutionary symbol of strength and feminist empowerment. It was part of Westinghouse’s daily corporate cheer to stoke morale. Westinghouse Magazine (September 1942) featured a picture of such a rally with the explanation, “With ‘Let’s Show Them’ as their slogan and a clenched fist as their symbol,” the team readies for their duties. Her image was created for capitalist and nationalist purposes.

Talk about Cultural Appropropriation

Rosie has been grossly misappropriated. She was no feminist. She was only so in that she expected full and equal pay for a full day’s work. But she was first and foremost a dedicated patriot, standing in while her husband or boyfriend risked his life on the front. Her desire was to earn a living for her family and provide the military resources to help her man come home safe and victoriously. Nobody, even the most gender-role traditionalist of her day, thought she was transcending or redefining femininity by doing this sort of labor.

Yes, she was happy for the work, the education and independence it provided. She changed the working world for her daughters and granddaughters, to be sure. But the only message she was interested in sending was to the Axis powers. Her only stand was for victory, as evidenced by the copy of “Mein Kampf” she’s stomping on in Rockwell’s rendering.

She was indeed strong, capable, and dedicated, and did not shrink from the difficult challenge. The millions of women who became Rosies were true national treasures, and the Great War likely could not have been won without them. Her British sisters did the same, and so did her mothers and grandmothers in World War I.

Don’t Turn Rosie Into a Feminist Fable

Just as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony would be scandalized to find themselves assumed into a movement that is antithetical to their strongly held convictions about the life of the unborn and the virtue of motherhood, Rosie would be as well. A scholarly article in the journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs addresses the many myths and misconceptions that have grown up around the “We Can Do It!” poster in recent decades. The authors designate its recent pop-culture evolution a “feminist fable.”

Today’s understanding of the poster and its message are for the most part “mythic”: “[W]hile the words in ‘We Can Do It!’ may appear to emerge from a female source, the image’s beauty and elegance conceal the fact that it is a ventriloquist’s voice commissioned by Westinghouse,” a voice whose purpose was corporately masculine and perhaps even exploitive. That poster was replaced two weeks later by the Westinghouse floor foreman with this one of the same series by the same artist, just the opposite of any feminist ideal.

These scholars conclude the “poster has come to represent a past that never was.” Most of these patriotic and self-sacrificing Rosies would not care for the way they have been coopted by the more radical fringes of the feminist movement today, particularly the New Yorker’s historically dishonest use of her. This is who she was, here, here, here, and here.

Rosie signed up for and succeeded in a great national cause. It’s incorrect to sign her up for something she was never about. She was not a revolutionary idealist, but rather a patriotic realist: head down, working hard for her family and country. Rosie was a well-behaved woman who made history. Let her be what she was.