Everything I know is wrong.
If I’ve learned anything during my time walking this dusty earth, it’s that. Even when I’m absolutely certain of something, new discoveries will be made, new details will emerge, and I’ll find that my absolute certainty is suddenly sitting atop a very unstable and quivering fault line of new revelation.
The latest example is “Rosie the Riveter.” What’s the first image that comes to mind when you hear that phrase? The odds are that it’s the iconic rendering of a flexing female factory worker under the slogan “We Can Do It!” That image is burned into the collective consciousness as a national symbol that has been inspiring and empowering countless girls and women since … 1982.
Um, say what?
Oddly enough, it’s kind of true. The image in question indeed dates back to the throes of World War II in 1943; however, not a lot of people had the opportunity to view it at the time – much less elevate it to an archetypal symbol of patriotism and equality – and it could be argued that it doesn’t have anything to do with Rosie the Riveter.
First, a quick aside: A 1942 song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb titled “Rosie the Riveter” is apparently the initial source for the phrase. The song was followed by the May 29, 1943, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, which featured a Norman Rockwell-painted cover depicting a likely-song-inspired image of a red-haired, smudge-faced female factory employee noshing on a sandwich during her worktime lunchbreak. Across her lap rests her idled rivet gun. Scrawled across her lunchbox is her name: Rosie. (Fun fact: Rosie’s last name? Judging by what appears to be an employee nametag in Rockwell’s painting, it’s Baldwin.)
Now back to the “We Can Do It!” image: So where does this play into things? According to the website pophistorydig.comas well as a 2018 article in the Washington Post, the “We Can Do It!” poster was created by artist J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corp. to motivate company employees to aid in the war effort. Westinghouse had factories in Pennsylvania and the Midwest, where the poster was displayed in 1943 – for two weeks.
That’s it. Two weeks, then – poof – gone.
So how did it go from a 14-day blip to a singular symbol of feminism? That’s where we jump forward nearly 40 years to 1982. Miller’s image was resurrected and summarily rediscovered when it was included in a 1982 story for the Washington Post Magazineabout patriotic posters housed in the National Archives. The image immediately clicked in the shared national identity and became synonymous with Rosie the Riveter and women’s rights.
Yes, I know, I’m just splitting hairs here. While all of the above is true, it’s also true that Rosie the Riveter isn’t necessarily one concept or one image. It’s more of a communal idea of the legion of American women who stepped up and powered the nation during the Second World War – and how that unwavering and unsung temerity and tenacity still resonates when discussing the issues of equity and equality today.
Still, the elusive and confusing history of Rosie the Riveter makes for interesting conversation. So feel free to tuck it away in your back pocket and drop it into small talk whenever you want to be the smarty pants at the party and blow a few minds.
*The Rosie seen pictured here is CAWLM’s cover woman, Colleen Graber. Read this month’s issue for more on Graber and why she is a modern day Rosiie.
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