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The riveting story of wartime propaganda that became a feminist icon

By Adam Pasick & Dan Kopf

“We Can Do It!”

When 20-year-old Naomi Parker Fraley started working at a Navy machining shop in Alameda, California, in 1941, there was no way she could have known that she would become a lasting symbol for female empowerment.

After the Pearl Harbor attacks, most military-aged American men went off to fight. The United States needed women to fill wartime factories—and Fraley and her sister Ada were among the millions who answered the call, building and repairing airplane wings (including, yes, riveting).

One day at the factory, a photographer snapped a picture of Fraley wearing her trademark red bandana. The photo went on to inspire a propaganda poster for Westinghouse Electric, which over the course of several decades morphed into a feminist icon.

The true story of Rosie the Riveter is also a dark one—the women who flooded into the workforce during the war were largely displaced by men when they returned—and a twisty tale of mistaken identity: Fraley remained anonymous for seven decades while another woman wrongly took the credit.

Rosie: A brief history

1941: An ACME news agency photographer snaps Fraley (nee Parker) working at a turret lathe.

1942: Artist J. Howard Miller creates the “We Can Do It!” poster; circumstantial evidence suggests it was based on the photo of Fraley. The work was intended “only to deter absenteeism and strikes” among employees.

1942: Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb compose a song called “Rosie the Riveter” about wartime female factory workers, based on a woman named Rosalind Walter who worked as a riveter on fighter planes.

1943: Westinghouse displays a small “We Can Do It!” poster, measuring 17 inches wide and 22 inches high, for only two weeks, in factories making helmet liners out of a material called Mycarta, (the predecessor to Formica).

1943: Norman Rockwell’s painting of Rosie the Riveter—modeled after a telephone operator named Mary Doyle Keefe—appears on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

1944: The Hollywood musical “Rosie the Riveter” is released. “Rosie” becomes a generic name for women working in the war effort.

1982: The Washington Post covers a collection of patriotic posters in the US National Archive, prominently featuring “We Can Do It,” which got mixed up in the public imagination with Rosie the Riveter.

1994: Smithsonian Magazine features “We Can Do It!” on its cover. A former Michigan war factory worker named Geraldine Hoff Doyle sees the magazine and concludes it was based on a photograph of her.

2002: Sotheby’s sells Rockwell’s Rosie painting for nearly $5 million at auction.

2015: Historian James Kimble discovers that Fraley, not Doyle, was the woman photographed in 1941. “It turns out that almost everything we think about Rosie the Riveter is wrong,” he told The Omaha World-Herald. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”

The caption

Here’s the text that accompanied the photo of Fraley in 1941. As you can see, it was a different era when it came to talking about women in the workplace:

“Pretty Naomi Parker is as easy to look at as overtime pay on the week’s check. And she’s a good example of an old contention that glamor is what goes into the clothes, and not the clothes. Pre-war fashion frills are only a discord in war-time clothing for women. Naomi wears heavy shoes, black suit, and a turban to keep her hair out of harm’s way (we mean the machine, you dope).”

Listen to this

“Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage
That little frail can do more than a male can do
Rosie, brrrrrrrrrrr, the riveter”

“Rosie The Riveter” by The Four Vagabonds

By the digits

27%: Working-age US women in the labor force in 1940

37%: Working-age US women in the labor force in 1944

32%: Working-age US women in the labor force in 1950

18 million: US women who worked in war jobs from 1942-1945

300,000 airplanes: Estimated output of women in the US war effort, along with 100,000 tanks and 44 billion rounds of ammunition

When childcare was a matter of national security

“The hand that holds the pneumatic riveter cannot rock the cradle at the same time,” author G.G. Wetherill wrote in 1943. During the war, the US created a heavily subsidized national childcare program—only to end it when the war ceased.

Fun fact

The Guinness World Record for most Rosies: 2,000 women who gathered in Ypsilanti, Michigan, near the Willow Run plant where World War II bombers were made.

Did you know?

Rivets, commonly used in airplane and ship manufacturing, date back to the Bronze Age.

Quotable:

“Victory! Victory! Victory!”

— Naomi Parker Fraley to Omaha World-Herald columnist Matthew Hansen after her role in the “We Can Do It!” poster was finally confirmed.