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Rosie the Riveter and her sisters

A female worker drives rivets into an aircraft while another watches from the cockpit (Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images)
A female worker drives rivets into an aircraft while another watches from the cockpit (Photo: Harold M. Lambert/Getty Images)

The Second World War was a big step for women’s emancipation. With so many men fighting away from home, vital industries needed housewives to step up and take jobs formerly reserved for men in factories producing war materials. Patriotic paintings, photographs and songs created several poster girls, such as “Rosie the Riveter,” exhorting women to serve their country.
 
Women working outside their homes in the United States was not a new phenomenon in World War II. The real turning point happened during WWI, when women across the country were employed in jobs previously done by men. Before this period, women typically played the role of the homemaker. Conscription forced men to leave their jobs to serve their country overseas, and a great demand for labor arose which could be filled only by employing women. Between 1940 and 1945, this demand resulted in the increase of women’s percentage in the American workforce from 27 to 37 percent, meaning that by the end of the war almost one out of every four married women worked outside their homes. Half of the 6 million women who entered the workforce during the war were employed by defense industries. The aviation segment experienced the greatest increase in employing female workers. To recruit women, the government created a propaganda campaign hallmarked by “Rosie the Riveter,” who became the female icon of WWII, the Home Front equivalent of G.I. Joe.

Women working in a munitions factory during WWII (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Women working in a munitions factory during WWII (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A song called “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942, debuted in early 1943. It was about a female assembly line worker who "Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage / Sitting up there on the fuselage." Published by the Paramount Music Corporation and recorded by several popular bands, it was played on the radio across the country and became a hit. The song aimed to exhort women to be patriotic and contribute to the war effort through their work, as well as through buying war bonds. Rosie the Riveter’s figure set the new ideal of the American woman. According to the wife of John Jacob Loeb, the title was mainly selected for its alliteration. Thus, the title of the song wasn’t inspired by but is associated with 21-year-old Rosie Bonavita Hickey. She volunteered to work as an aircraft riveter when her high-school sweetheart and future husband, serving on the USS Mississippi, wrote to him about the great need for more planes. In 1943, with the song already on the radio, Rosie and her work partner set a speed record by riveting an entire trailing edge wing assembly on a Grumman Avenger torpedo bomber in 6 hours, making it to the headline of the New York Sun. Another team later beat her record, so she set a new one with 4 hours and 10 minutes.

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The song Rosie the Riveter performed by Allen Miller and his orchestra (Video: YouTube)

The prototype of Rosie the Riveter was actually created in 1942, in the same year the song came out, and featured on a poster for the plastic helmet liner manufacturer Westinghouse Electric Corporation under the headline “We Can Do It!” It was artist J. Howard Miller’s iconic image of a woman flexing her bicep and wearing a spotted red bandanna. The poster was used strictly internally in the Westinghouse factories, displayed only for two weeks during February 1943 to encourage already-hired women to work harder. It gained great popularity when feminists rediscovered it and associated it with women’s empowerment. Everyone is familiar with the image, but not many people realize that the woman on it was never supposed to be Rosie the Riveter. It lay forgotten until the early 1980s, when it was reproduced for a magazine article and catapulted to international fame as a feminist symbol, incorrectly described as a Rosie the Riveter image.

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The famous “We Can Do It!” poster of J. Howard Miller – not actually depicting Rosie the Riveter (Photo: NARA)

For a long time, it was assumed that the poster was based on a photo of an anonymous woman working at a machine tool. In 1984, Geraldine Hoff Doyle stepped forward, claiming she recognized herself in both the reprinted photo in the Modern Maturity magazine and the poster. During the war, the 17-year-old Doyle worked with a metal pressing machine in Michigan for a few weeks when a United Press photographer took photos of working women. She abandoned the job as she was a cellist and was afraid of a hand injury ruining her musical career. The media quickly picked up her claim and she was universally accepted as the “the real-life Rosie the Riveter.” She passed away in 2010, at the age of 86.

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Geraldine Hoff Doyle at the age of 17 in 1942 (Photo: Wikipedia)
Geraldine Hoff Doyle at the age of 17 in 1942 (Photo: Wikipedia)

In 2016, however, New Jersey associate professor James Kimble from Seton Hall University published the results of a six-year research proving that Doyle’s claim was made in innocent mistake. He published an article titled “Rosie’s Secret Identity” with his findings in the Rhetoric & Public Affairs journal. He dug up a vintage newspaper from 1942, where the photo was captioned “Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating.”

The famous 1942 photo of Naomi Parker that was probably the basis for the famous poster (Photo: Bettmann Archive)
The famous 1942 photo of Naomi Parker that was probably the basis for the famous poster (Photo: Bettmann Archive)

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 20-year-old Naomi Parker and her 18-year-old sister, Ada, were working at the Naval Air Station at Alameda when her picture was taken by the Acme press agency. They worked in a machine shop and were tasked with riveting and patching airplane wings.

Naomi Parker (left), her sister Ada (center), and Frances Johnson representing war work fashion at the Alameda Naval Air Station in 1942 (Photo: Bettmann Archive)
Naomi Parker (left), her sister Ada (center), and Frances Johnson representing war work fashion at the Alameda Naval Air Station in 1942 (Photo: Bettmann Archive)

After the war, the sisters worked as waitresses at the famous Doll House restaurant in Palm Springs, California. Naomi only recognized herself in the famous picture in 2011 at a reunion of female war workers but no one believed her. Eventually, Kimble’s research proved that she was right and history books could be set straight (though there is still no hard proof that Miller’s poster was based on the photograph since the artist died in 1985). In an interview to the Omaha World-Herald, she described her feelings as follows: “Victory! Victory! Victory!” In another interview given to the People magazine she said, “I didn’t want fame or fortune, but I did want my own identity.” Naomi and Ada lived together in Cottonwood, California until Naomi’s death a few years ago on January 20, 2018, at the age of 96.

The original Rosie poster and the photo retaken with Naomi Parker for People magazine in 2016 (Photo: Ramona Rosales, People)
The original Rosie poster and the photo retaken with Naomi Parker for People magazine in 2016 (Photo: Ramona Rosales, People)

There were, however, several other real-life individuals associated with the figure of Rosie the Riveter. On May 29, 1943, the Memorial Day issue of the Saturday Evening Post published a cover image by artist Norman Rockwell, portraying Rosie sitting the way Michelangelo's Prophet Isaiah does on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The painting gave another boost to the character’s recognition. In the picture, Rosie is shown on her lunch break, eating a sandwich from her opened lunch box labeled “Rosie,” with a riveting gun on her lap.  A giant American flag waves behind her and her feet are resting on Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Rockwell preferred to paint based on photos rather than live models. Even the photo of the model was taken by Rockwell’s photographer, Gene Pelham, and not by Rockwell himself.

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter painting (Photo: Curtis Publishing)
Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter painting (Photo: Curtis Publishing)

The painting was based on a picture not of an actual riveter, but a 19-year-old phone operator called Mary Doyle Keefe. She was paid 10 USD (around 140 USD in today’s dollars) for the two-hour session. Rockwell deliberately painted Rosie bigger and more muscular than Doyle was and later called the model on the phone to apologize for the changes. In 1967, Rockwell sent her a letter saying: “The kidding you took was all my fault…because I really thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever seen.” The newspaper donated Rockwell's popular painting to the Second War Loan Drive, which traveled the United States to encourage the purchase of war bonds. She passed away in 2015, at the age of 92.

Mary Doyle Keefe and Norman Rockwell posing with the painting (Photo: Norman Rockwell Museum Digital Collections)
Mary Doyle Keefe and Norman Rockwell posing with the painting (Photo: Norman Rockwell Museum Digital Collections)

The character also became associated with a Rosalind P. Walter, who also worked on planes and became a philanthropist after the war, and Rose Will Monroe, who worked on B-24 bombers. Endowed with a love of flying, Monroe went on to obtain a pilot’s license at the age of 50. In 1978, she crashed in a small plane, losing one of her kidneys, the vision in her left eye and the chance to fly again. Of course, Rosie the Riveter wasn’t the only propaganda figure concocted to lure women into the workforce. There was also a short-lived “Wendy the Welder” based on Janet Doyle at Kaiser Richmond Liberty Shipyards in California (Read our earlier article – Liberty Ships).

One of “Wendy the Welders” (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)
One of “Wendy the Welders” (Photo: U.S. Library of Congress)

An older sister of Rosie from abroad was the Canadian "Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” based on Veronica Foster of Toronto, and usually depicted assembling the Bren light machine gun. The idea of Rosie the Riveter might have come from her character since her photos were taken in 1941.

“Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” posing with a Bren gun at the John Inglis Co. Ltd. Bren gun plant (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)
“Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl” posing with a Bren gun at the John Inglis Co. Ltd. Bren gun plant (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)

A young British factory worker, Ruby Loftus, became immortalized in Britain under her true name. Laura Knight, one of the most famous and successful British painters of her time and known for several of her WWII-themed paintings, was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to bolster female recruitment with a picture. The large oil painting depicts Loftus fashioning the breech-ring of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun, a component that could destroy the entire weapon on firing if not made with accuracy.

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Ruby Loftus in a photograph with Minister of Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, and in the painting (Photos: IWM)

Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era. The American Rosie The Riveter Association gave examples of items produced by Rosies and the “few good men” who worked alongside them: 297,000 airplanes, 102,000 tanks, 372,000 artillery pieces, 88,000 warships, 44,000,000.000 (44 billion) rounds of small arms ammunition and 47,000,000 tons of artillery ammunition. With the appearance of Rosie, women’s role in society changed. Although many of them exited the job market after the war ended, and despite the government propaganda urging women to became homemakers again, the number of working women never again fell to pre-war levels. Women still earned much less than their male colleagues, normally getting around half of their male counterparts’ payment. In addition, working conditions on the Home Front were quite dangerous. Between the attack on Pearl Harbor and D-Day, the number of Home Front industrial casualties exceeded that of military casualties. This led to better workplace safety conditions and more affordable health care.
 
Used often in pop culture, Rosie is still an unmistakable icon representing women’s empowerment. In the U.S., the National Rosie the Riveter Day is normally observed on March 21 upon the annual approval of the Senate and the House of Representatives. Established in 2000, Rosie’s legacy is now preserved also by the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.

The Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Marina Bay Park, Richmond, CA. (Photo: nps.gov)
The Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Marina Bay Park, Richmond, CA. (Photo: nps.gov)

Apart from her legend, Rosie is an inspiration for future generations, too. A testimony to this is the upcoming second test flight of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station scheduled for May 2022. This is the second uncrewed launch of the Starliner under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, paving the way toward launching astronauts to the International Space Station. Boeing’s anthropometric test device on board is called “Rosie the Rocketeer,” after Rosie the Riveter. “Rosie’s first flight provided hundreds of data points about what astronauts will experience during flight, but this time she’ll help maintain Starliner’s center of gravity during ascent, docking, undocking and landing,” said Melanie Weber from the Commercial Crew Program. Rosie is a tribute to the women who contributed to the development of the aerospace industry and human spaceflight. Now, she will be wearing the signature red bandanna with a matching COVID-19 mask that was hand-sewn by 95-year-old Mae Krier. She is a real-life Rosie who worked in a Boeing factory in Seattle when she was 17 years old.

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Boeing’s anthropometric test device “Rosie the Rocketeer” (Photo: Boeing)

Rosie the Riveter has not only inspired women but, on top of that, we can even find links to Normandy. During the Battle of Normandy, bazookas were mounted on the L-4 Grasshopper observation plane of Major Charles "Bazooka Charlie" Carpenter, who reportedly destroyed six German tanks and other vehicles with his aircraft named Rosie the Rocketer (Read our earlier article – The Bazooka).

"Bazooka Charlie" with his plane, Rosie the Rocketer, armed with bazookas (Photo: Carol Apacki)
"Bazooka Charlie" with his plane, Rosie the Rocketer, armed with bazookas (Photo: Carol Apacki)
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