Real-life ‘Rosie’ who inspired a generation

Up the women: On the right, 20-year-old Naomi Parker leans over a lathe (a metalworking tool).

What does the iconic Rosie the Riveter poster really teach us about feminism? Around 75 years after it was first displayed, the woman who may have inspired the image has died. She was 96.

The second world war was a golden age of propaganda posters. And none are more iconic than that of Rosie the Riveter, who went on to become a symbol of women’s strength and independence.

This week, the woman who inspired that poster died aged 96.

Her name was Naomi Parker Fraley. In 1941, when she was 20 years old, she began working at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California — one of six million American women who worked across the USA to help the war effort.

Soon, a photograph of her appeared in a local newspaper. That photo is thought to have inspired the artist J. Howard Miller, who then produced the “We can do it!” poster.

It was displayed at Westinghouse Electrics factories in for just two weeks 1943. Then it disappeared for four decades, until it was found at the US National Archives in the 1980s.

The woman in the factory photograph was misidentified as Geraldine Doyle for many years. But in 2016, Fraley was finally acknowledged as the “real” Rosie.

Meanwhile, the poster has become iconic. Beyoncé posed as Rosie on Instagram in 2014. Last year, New Yorker magazine re-imagined it to mark the Women’s March in January. It has been used in advertisements, political campaigns, and countless Hallowe’en costumes.

We can do… what?

This poster does not send a feminist message, argue some. It was designed to deter women from striking while they worked at unsafe jobs, earning less than men, knowing they would be fired in peacetime. Worst of all, it suggests that women must do all that while still looking pretty.

It is still empowering, say others. Regardless of the original intention, women today see it as a message that they can be strong, independent and powerful. As Fraley herself said: “The women of this country… need some icons. If they think I’m one, I’m happy about that.”

You Decide

  1. Does the story behind the “We can do it!” poster change how you feel about it?

Activities

  1. Design your own poster, inspired by Rosie, for women in 2018.

Some People Say...

“Most of these women had one thing in common: they did not think of themselves as heroes.”

Kathryn J. Atwood, Women Heroes of World War II

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The original picture of Naomi Parker was taken at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, in March 1942. It was then published in several local newspapers. J. Howard Miller painted the poster that year.
What do we not know?
Whether the photo of Parker really inspired Miller. It was not found among his possessions and he never mentioned it as an influence.

Word Watch

Rosie the Riveter
The idea of “Rosie the Riveter” was a fictional patriotic symbol, made popular by a 1943 song of the same name. Although the “We can do it!” poster is often referred to as Rosie the Riveter, this was not the name used for it at the time.
Worked
Wartime jobs included farming, nursing, and manufacturing aircraft and ammunition.
Women’s March
On January 21st 2017, hundreds of thousands of women protested in favour of women’s rights and against the new US president, Donald Trump. Many wore hand-knitted pink hats.

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