A Tale of Two Rosies: The History of an Iconic American Image

When you think of Rosie the Riveter, the first image that likely comes to mind is a woman with her hair pulled back in a bandana, flexing her muscles, and saying “We Can Do It!” However, this version of Rosie the Riveter, painted by J. Howard Miller, was only on display for two weeks, and few people saw it at the time. On the other hand, Norman Rockwell’s version was printed on the cover of the May 1943 edition of the Saturday Evening Post and was seen and shared by millions.

Today, Miller’s version of Rosie is very well known, having been used by many celebrities and politicians as a way to empower women and say women could do whatever they wanted. This was probably not, however, what the artist intended when creating this piece. The “We Can Do It” slogan was originally meant to refer to the United States winning World War II, not about women joining the workforce, which was something many people were uneasy about back then.

World War II was a total war, meaning that although it was mainly fought overseas, it affected the homeland and civilians significantly. During the war, many women had to step up to help support the troops, either by collecting scrap metals, buying war bonds, or perhaps most importantly, joining the workforce. Women around the nation assumed jobs that belonged to men before the war.

Despite the need for labor, most Americans were opposed to women joining the workforce during World War II. This was especially true for women with young children, since few childcare system existed back then. Many of the men who stayed in America during the war disapproved of women entering the workplace, because they feared the competition would reduce their own wages. Because of this, women were paid considerably less than their male counterparts and most of the propaganda showed non-threatening, attractive, middle-class, white women to emphasize the notion that women would only be in the workforce temporarily.

An excellent example of how many women entered the workforce could be seen in Milwaukee manufacturing companies. One of the largest of these companies, the Allis-Chalmers Manufacturing Company, had 4,700 workers, only 3 percent of which were female before the war, in 1937. However, by the end of the war, the female workforce grew to almost one-fourth of the company.

Wisconsin had its own real-life “Rosie” during the war. In 1944, Rose Kaminski’s husband was drafted from Milwaukee, and she was forced to rely on her neighbor to watch her young daughter while she went to work. Rose worked several jobs, such as operating a crane for the Rex Chain Bell Company and at the Harnischfeger Corporation. Nevertheless, when the war was over, despite her newly acquired skills, she left her job and returned to the classic gender role expectation of taking care of her husband and child, just like millions of other women across the country did.

Even though there was significant controversy around women joining the workforce, the nation still wanted to honor the immense contribution of the women towards the war effort. For this reason, the most popular piece at the time was Rockwell’s Rosie, who was a muscular yet feminine riveter, shown stomping her boot on a copy of Mein Kampf . This piece highlighted the extraordinary work women did during the war and was loved by many, despite being a bit more masculine than most of the female propaganda from that time. However, after the war, Rockwell’s artwork and other similar images were mostly forgotten as women returned home to care for their children and households.

In the ‘80s, feminists needed a symbol of empowerment to help get women back into the workforce after the baby boom of the 1950s. Miller’s Rosie the Riveter was a perfect piece to communicate that message, because it brought back memories of when women, like Rose Kaminski, were in the workforce, but it did not seem as pro-war as Rockwell’s version did. The slogan “We Can Do It” was also easy to construe as one of female empowerment rather than being one to remind people of the war.

Rosie the Riveter has become a very prominent feminist symbol, and Miller’s version has become arguably the most iconic propaganda piece from that time. Even so, most people remain ignorant of the history behind the poster and the reasons for its fame. Along with symbolizing women entering the workforce during the war, it also serves as a reminder of the significance of second-wave feminism and the importance of women permanently entering the workforce.

[Source: The Conversation, Wisconsin History Highlights ]

Great article, Gabby! I never even knew of the original piece or its meaning. I also enjoyed the history of Rose Kaminski from Wisconsin. Keep up the great journalism! – Taylor Kilgore , Madison (2020-07-14 17:25)
What an interesting topic and an important part of history to write about. Thanks for sharing, great work! – Helen , Madison (2020-07-14 18:11)