Rosie The Riveter has been a feminist icon for decades, but who really was the bandana'ed heroine? Well, she wasn’t just one woman: She was a symbol of the 60,000 who joined the workforce during WWII. When men left their jobs to enlist in the armed forces, women’s employment rose from 27% to 37%, with most of them taking on jobs in defense industries.
In 1942, The Westinghouse Power Company commissioned Jay Howard Miller to create a promotional poster to boost morale amongst female employees. But it wasn’t until Norman Rockwell’s painting of a riveter on her lunch break for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post that Rosie was truly popularized.
She was posed with her foot resting on Hitler’s "Mein Kampf," a riveting gun on her lap, and the name “Rosie” written on her lunch-box. It was this painting that truly brought Rosie The Riveter to life.
Rose Will Monroe, a riveter on B-24 and B-29 bomber planes in Michigan, received attention from the press for being the “real life Rosie the Riveter,” even appearing in a filmed advertisement for war bonds. While she was not the actual Rosie, Monroe was definitely a feminist icon of her time: Before she became a riveter, applied to a pilot training program. But because she was a single mother (widowed in 1942) she was not accepted. After the war she founded a luxury home building company called Rose Builders, and at the age of 50 finally learned to fly. She taught her younger daughter how to pilot a plane before passing away in 1997.
Although women did have more opportunity in the workforce after WWII, most were relegated to “women’s work” such as nursing, clerical work, and cleaning. They were also paid less (and still are) because they were not seen as central contributors to their family's income. And of course the men of the time were incredibly intimidated by women’s new role in society and in their places of work, and many stubbornly clung to the patriarchal structures that are still slowly dissolving today.
Once developed as a tool to encourage women to take over jobs they would one day have to fight for, Rosie the Riveter has become a powerful representation of women’s strength and spunk. Here are some real-life Rosie the Riveters in photos taken by Roy Stryker in 1942, and released by The Library of Congress.
Photos via Norman Rockwell/Saturday Evening Post, Library of Congress, Jay Howard Miller