The woman who inspired “Rosie the Riveter” has died at 92

An American heroine, photographed in 2002.
An American heroine, photographed in 2002.
Image: AP Photo/Jim Cole
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Norman Rockwell’s iconic World War II painting Rosie the Riveter, which appeared on the Memorial Day cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943, quickly became a wartime symbol of female resolve.

The image has continued to resonate through the decades since, as evidenced by the widespread reaction to the news this week that Mary Doyle Keefe, the woman who posed for Rockwell’s painting, died on April 21 at 92.

Rockwell’s painting saluted the millions of women who stepped into the jobs of men conscripted into military service, to keep the massive American war effort moving.

Keefe, then a 19-year-old telephone operator working out of her mother’s house, met Rockwell in Vermont, where he also lived, and agreed to model for his painting for $10 ($150 in today’s dollars). She was not actually a factory worker and had never riveted a thing.

Rockwell transformed the petite Keefe into a glamorously brawny, resolute airplane factory worker, munching on a sandwich with a riveting gun on her lap, as she used Hitler’s Mein Kampf as a foot rest. Rockwell based Keefe’s pose on that of the prophet Isaiah in Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Keefe later recalled that she was surprised to see Rockwell transform her figure so drastically, and said the famed painter called her to apologize.

The “Rosie the Riveter” character is believed to have originated in a 1942 song of the same name. From there, the character became a popular national icon, epitomized by Rockwell’s painting. And as a symbol of American patriotism more generally, it was disseminated around the country to drum up support for the war and to sell war bonds.

In the popular imagination, the “Rosie” character has sometimes been confused with a different wartime image of a resolute woman worker with impressive biceps. In 1942, the Westinghouse Company commissioned a series of posters meant to boost its workers’ morale (pdf).

The Westinghouse poster, below right, is believed to be based on the then-17-year-old factory worker Geraldine Hoff, who died in 2010. It has inspired a number of parodies, and today is frequently mistaken for Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter.

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Rockwell’s original painting sold for $5 million in 2002, and is now on display at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.

After posing for the painting, Keefe went on to graduate from Temple University and became a dental hygienist. In 1949 she married Robert J. Keefe, and the couple had four children, 11 grandchildren, and five great grandchildren. She died on April 21 in Connecticut.