Real-life ‘Rosie’ who inspired a generation
What does the iconic “We Can Do It” poster teach us about feminism? Around 75 years after it first burst upon the world, the woman who inspired the image has died at the age of 96.
The second world war was a golden age of propaganda posters. In the USA, Uncle Sam pointed a finger and told potential troops “I want you for US army!” In the UK, the home front was encouraged to “Dig on for victory!”
But there is no war poster more iconic than that of Rosie the Riveter. With her strong arms, denim shirt, and polkadot headscarf, she has 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, and it took her a lifetime to be recognised. 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 in her signature headscarf appeared in a local newspaper. That photo is thought to have inspired the artist J. Howard Miller, who produced the “We Can Do It!” poster to boost the morale of employees at Westinghouse Electrics.
It was displayed at the factories in 1943 for just two weeks. Afterwards, the poster disappeared for four decades, until it was found at the US National Archives in the 1980s, and quickly began appearing on merchandise in the gift shop.
Fraley had no idea about her connection to the poster until she saw a picture of her young self at an exhibition in 2009. She had been misidentified, and spent years trying to be recognised by historians. In 2016, she was finally acknowledged.
Meanwhile, the poster had become iconic. Beyoncé posed as Rosie on Instagram in 2014, attracting 1.4 million likes. Last year, New Yorker magazine reimagined her as an African-American woman wearing a pink hat during the Women’s March in January. The image has been in advertisements, political campaigns, and countless Hallowe’en costumes.
We can do… what?
This poster has been wildly misrepresented, argue some. It was linked to the wrong woman. It was only seen by a handful of people during the war. It is not even feminist; it was designed to deter women from striking as 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. What kind of message is that in 2018?
The poster is still empowering, say others. Regardless of the artist’s original intention, today it is beloved for making a powerful statement to women and girls everywhere: they can be strong, independent and productive. The fact that the image has been reimagined so many times proves that its message is timeless. As Fraley herself said: “The women of this country… need some icons. If they think I’m one, I’m happy about that.”
- Does the story behind the “We can do it!” poster change how you feel about it?
- Is Rosie the Riveter an icon for women?
- Design your own poster, inspired by Rosie, for women in 2018.
- Research women’s role in work throughout history. Then create a timeline which shows some of the most important milestones.
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. The caption began “Pretty Naomi Parker is as easy to look at as overtime pay on the week's check…” The picture was published in several local newspapers. J. Howard Miller painted the poster that year. In 2002, the original painting was sold for almost $4.9 million.
- What do we not know?
- Whether the photo of Parker really inspired Miller when he was creating the poster. Although he lived in a town with a newspaper which published the image, it was not found among his possessions and he never mentioned it as an influence. We also do not know how the poster was received by the Westinghouse workers during the brief time it was displayed in 1943.
- Incidentally, London’s “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters were never actually displayed to the public, as they were considered too patronising.
- Rosie the Riveter
- The idea of “Rosie the Riveter” was not originally linked to a particular woman; she was fictional, a patriotic symbol popularised in a song of the same name released in 1943. The “We can do it!” poster is often referred to as a Rosie the Riveter poster, but this was not the name used for it at the time.
- Wartime jobs included farming, nursing, and manufacturing aircraft and ammunition. Almost 350,000 women worked for the military, although only nurses made it to the front lines. In 1940, 27% of working-age American women had jobs. By 1944 it had leapt up to 37%. In 1950 it was down to 32%.
- Westinghouse Electrics
- A large American electric and aviation manufacturing company, producing (among other things) plastic linings for military helmets during the war.
- 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.