Who is Rosie Riveter? Rosie the Riveter was the star of a campaign aimed at recruiting female workers for defense industries during World War II, and she became perhaps the most iconic image of working women. American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the war, as widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the industrial labor force.
Between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945 nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.
Rosies in the Workforce
While women during World War II worked in a variety of positions previously closed to them, the aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers.
More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as illustrated by the U.S. government’s Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign.
Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker, but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era.
Did you know? Though women who entered the workforce during World War II were crucial to the war effort, their pay continued to lag far behind their male counterparts: Female workers rarely earned more than 50 percent of male wages.
In movies, newspapers, propaganda posters, photographs and articles, the Rosie the Riveter campaign stressed the patriotic need for women to enter the workforce. On May 29, 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published a cover image by the artist Norman Rockwell, portraying Rosie with a flag in the background and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s racist tract “Mein Kampf” under her feet.
Though Rockwell’s image may be a commonly known version of Rosie the Riveter, her prototype was actually created in 1942 by a Pittsburgh artist named J. Howard Miller, and was featured on a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation under the headline “We Can Do It!”
Early in 1943, a popular song debuted called “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and the name went down in history.
Who is Rosie Riveter?
The true identity of Rosie the Riveter has been the subject of considerable debate. For years, the inspiration for the woman in the Westinghouse poster was believed to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Michigan, who worked in a Navy machine shop during World War II.
Other sources claim that Rosie was actually Rose Will Monroe, who worked as a riveter at the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Detroit. Monroe also was featured in a promotional film for war bonds.
And Rosalind P. Walter from Long Island, New York, is known to be the Rosie from the popular song by Evans and Loeb. Walter was, in fact, a riveter on Corsair fighter planes.
But the most credible claim on Rosie’s legacy came from Naomi Parker Fraley, who was photographed working in the machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. In the 1942 photo, she is sporting a telltale polka-dotted bandana. Fraley passed away in January 2018.
In addition to factory work and other home front jobs, some 350,000 women joined the Armed Services, serving at home and abroad. At the urging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and women’s groups, and impressed by the British use of women in service, General George C. Marshall supported the idea of introducing a women’s service branch into the Army.
In May 1942, Congress instituted the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, later upgraded to the Women’s Army Corps, which had full military status. Its members, known as WACs, worked in more than 200 non-combatant jobs stateside and in every theater of the war.
By 1945, there were more than 100,000 WACs and 6,000 female officers. In the Navy, members of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) held the same status as naval reservists and provided support stateside. The Coast Guard and Marine Corps soon followed suit, though in smaller numbers.
One of the lesser-known roles women played in the war effort was provided by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. These women, each of whom had already obtained their pilot’s license prior to service, became the first women to fly American military aircraft.
They ferried planes from factories to bases, transporting cargo and participating in simulation strafing and target missions, accumulating more than 60 million miles in flight distances and freeing thousands of male U.S. pilots for active duty in World War II.
More than 1,000 WASPs served, and 38 of them lost their lives during the war. Considered civil service employees and without official military status, these fallen WASPs were granted no military honors or benefits, and it wasn’t until 1977 that the WASPs received full military status.
Impact of Rosie the Riveter
The call for women to join the workforce during World War II was meant to be temporary and women were expected to leave their jobs after the war ended and men came home. The women who did stay in the workforce continued to be paid less than their male peers and were usually demoted.
But after their selfless efforts during World War II, men could no longer claim superiority over women. Women had enjoyed and even thrived on a taste of financial and personal freedom—and many wanted more. The impact of World War II on women changed the workplace forever, and women’s roles continued to expand in the postwar era.
Around 350,000 American women served in uniform, both at home and abroad, volunteering for the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps – later renamed the Women’s Army Corps — the Navy Women’s Reserve, the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve, the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the Army Nurses Corps, and the Navy Nurse Corps.
Some women served near the front lines in the Army Nurse Corps, where 16 were killed as a result of direct enemy fire. Sixty-eight American service women were captured as prisoners of war in the Philippines.
More than 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery under fire and meritorious service, and 565 WACs in the Pacific Theater won combat decorations. Nurses were in Normandy four days after the invasion began.
Deconstructing the Myth: Voices from Real Women Warriors in the Defense Industry
Eva Chenevert from Detroit, Michigan was interested in war work because she heard through advertising that local companies were hiring women. In 1943, one year after graduating high school, Eva was hired by Desoto Chrysler to make skins for airplanes. In the same year, Eva married her high school sweetheart while he was in the service.
For Eva, war work was a means to earn a living, as well as keep busy and prevent loneliness while her husband was away. Eva not only faced the challenge of being a woman working in a historically male dominated position, but she also fought against racism as an African American in a partially integrated work environment.
Eva experienced her first race riot –the Detroit Race Riot of 1943 that resulted in the death of 34 people—while attending high school in Detroit. A few years later, while Eva was working as a Rosie in Detroit, Chrysler was “integrated—to a point.”
Eva worked in an integrated group of workers, but she remembered a number of segregated groups worked within the factory. In terms of gender relations, Eva considered the men in the factory to be more accommodating and cooperative when they worked with female factory employees. Eva worked for Chrysler for less than a year and she earned enough money to purchase war bonds.
By 1945, the final year of World War II, propaganda targeting female war workers took a dramatic turn. Rather than encouraging women out of the home, the new media blitz attempted to embarrass female factory workers and encourage them back into their domestic roles at home.
Whereas earlier propaganda aimed to convince women that it was their duty as wives and mothers to work in the factories while the men were away fighting the war, the message twisted as the war dwindled to convince women that it was their responsibility to be good mothers at home now that the men were returning and would need employment.
The defense products that the women produced during the war, such as military aircraft and bullets, were no longer needed in mass quantities. Additionally, many employers tried to fill factory positions with returning veterans. Many women in factory work were included in massive layoffs or given increasingly difficult work within the factory to motivate the women to quit.
For more on the tactics used to push female factory employees out of the workplace at the end of the war, see oral interview with Mary Lawson, Ford employee, as part of the “Call to Duty” introductory video from the Rosie the Riveter World War II American Homefront Project.
Regardless of their ill treatment after the war, the majority of Riveters express in oral history that interviews the experience gave them a strong sense of accomplishment. One such woman was Arlene Crary of Madison, Wisconsin. Arlene worked for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, Washington while her husband was in the service during World War II.
For almost two years, Arlene worked full-time for Boeing and found a babysitter for her two young daughters. Within the factory, Arlene was valued as an employee because her small size enabled her to work in small spaces, such as the wing of the aircraft.
Arlene worked eight hours per day, six days a week, for a pay rate of $1.48 per hour, and she only had to pay the babysitter $10 per week. The money was enough for Arlene to pay for housing in Seattle, purchase war bonds, and save money for the future purchase of property. Arlene returned to her hometown of Madison before her husband returned from the war, and she continued working as a waitress.
Following the war, Arlene divorced her husband, but she used the money earned at Boeing to build a house in Madison. Reflecting on her time in the Boeing factory, Arlene commented that her experience as a Rosie made her more open-minded, less shy, and more aware of the value of teamwork.
Her time as a Rosie also helped Arlene learn to find people in her life that would truly love and support her. Noting, “I’ve been very fortunate to be an American,” Arlene demonstrated a strong appreciation for personal freedom during her interview.
Like many other Riveters, Arlene was able to use the experience of wage earning to improve her life financially, as well as find the courage to establish relationships with a greater level of equality and mutual appreciation.
The end of the war brought about the end the factory careers of many Riveters. However, for many women, as the life and oral testimony of Mary Lawson shows, they did fight gender and racial discrimination to stay employed in her factory. No longer surrounded by fellow Riveters, females who remained in factory work began working side by side with men.
Other Riveters, such as Arlene Crary, sought employment in traditionally female occupations such as waitressing and teaching. Another segment of Riveters returned to domestic life as full-time homemakers.
No matter their later paths, these true “Rosie the Riveters” were admired for their ability to maintain the homefront while simultaneously contributing to the war production effort. In the process, the Riveters also developed a strong sense of identity as independent, skilled workers.
Who is Rosie the Riveter and why is she important?
Millions of women during World War II stood up when their country needed them, entering the workforce to fill gaps left by men who were fighting the war. These women, popularly known as “Rosie the Riveters,” worked in factories, shipyards and elsewhere in defense production.
What does Rosie the Riveter represent now?
She is widely recognized in the “We Can Do It!” poster as a symbol of American feminism and women’s economic advantage. Similar images of women war workers appeared in other countries such as Britain and Australia. The idea of Rosie the Riveter originated in a song written in 1942 by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb.
Who is Rosie the Riveter based on?
Naomi Parker Fraley, the inspiration behind Rosie the Riveter, died in January 2018. In 1942, 20-year-old Naomi Parker was working in a machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, when a photographer snapped a shot of her on the job.
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