Women in Power: Rosie the Riveter

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Welcome to one of our newest columns, Women in Power! Inspired by the upcoming election, Women in Power will feature important women in history, outline their accomplishments, and explain how you can honor these amazing ladies in style.

Rosie the Riveter

Photo: J. Howard Miller, poster used by War Production Co-ordinating Committee via Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: In a departure from our usual Women in Power posts, this week’s featured woman is a little different… in that she’s technically a fictional character. Although Rosie The Riveter wasn’t an actual person, the women who inspired her character were very real, as was her effect on the women’s empowerment movement. We hope you enjoy!

We’ve all seen the iconic poster: “We Can Do It!” A young woman wearing a polka dot headscarf flexes her muscles with a determined look and stares us down. She’s the picture of female empowerment. A woman can’t help but feel strong, motivated, and dedicated when she looks at that symbolic image.

In more recent years, the fictional woman depicted in this poster has come to be known as “Rosie the Riveter.” Although this nickname wasn’t used in World War II when she was first created, Rosie has since become a symbol of feminism and power. During wartime, Rosie the Riveter was a popular figure used to boost morale and encourage women to help with the war. There have been many real-world inspirations for Rosie, as well as a variety of images and songs. Rosie’s image has been used for decades and has inspired women to believe that, regardless of societal norms or social constraints, they can do it.

Keep reading to learn more about Rosie the Riveter and to see an outfit inspired by the cultural icon.

10 Facts about Rosie:

  • The term “Rosie the Riveter” was first publicized in 1942 in a song written by Redd Evans and Jacob Loeb. The tune portrayed a young woman named Rosie as a diligent assembly line worker doing her part to support the American war efforts.
  • During World War II, propaganda was aimed at American housewives in an effort to encourage them to join the workforce while men were away. Advertisements would link household work with factory jobs. For instance, one campaign featured the following rhetoric: “Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill!” During the war, women that chose to enter the workforce were paid higher wages than before but were encouraged to return to housewife occupations and traditional work when men returned.
  • The inspiration for the song “Rosie the Riveter” was a young woman named Rosalind P Walter who worked the night shift building the F4U Corsair fighter. Rosie the Riveter was also associated with Rose Will Monroe, a Kentucky-born woman who moved to Michigan during the war to work at an aircraft factory. Rose eventually achieved her dream of piloting planes in her 50s and became a spokesperson for and icon of the war effort.
  • Rosie the Riveter is known not only for inspiring women to work, but also for sparking a social movement. The Rosie propaganda helped increase the number of working American women from 12 million to 20 million by 1944, a 57% increase from 1940. By 1944, there were 1.7 million unmarried men between 20 and 34 working in the defense industry and an incredible 4.1 million unmarried women doing the same. Women workers were not constrained to the defense industry, though – during this time, women were breaking into all sectors of the economy. By 1942, the percentage of jobs employers deemed “acceptable” for women had risen from 29% to 85%.
  • Rosie not only aided the women’s rights movement, she also paved the way for tolerance and the civil rights movement. As white women entered the workforce, working alongside black women and men, long-supported social barriers began to break down. Workplace diversity slowly began to be celebrated and the idea of equality was beginning to reach the American psyche.
  • Although women were making progress in the workplace, wages were still unequal (as they unfortunately still are today). The average working wartime man was paid $54.65 per week whereas a woman working the same job only made about $31.50. After the war, many women were forced out of their jobs to make way for returning servicemen. Because of this turnover, Rosie the Riveter inspired an age-old debate: was Rosie’s influence a major turning point in American history or was this simply a phase that did little for gender equality in the long run?
  • The iconic “We Can Do It!” poster was created in 1942 by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller. The Westinghouse Company’s War Production Coordinating Committee had hired him to create a series of promotional posters for the war effort. In later years, this poster would be called Rosie the Riveter, although this connection was never made during the war. The poster was based on a photograph of 17-year-old factory worker Geraldine Hoff. The poster was originally intended to boost morale, not recuruit more women workers. In the 1980s, the iconic poster was rediscovered and became famously associated with feminism.
  • A lesser-known Rosie the Riveter image was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day, 1943. The picture depicted a woman taking her lunch break with a rivet gun on her lap, a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf beneath her shoe, and a lunchpail labeled “Rosie” at her side.
  • On October 14, 2000, Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was opened in Richmond, California, the site of four Kaiser shipyards where thousands of Rosies from around the country worked. Approximately 200 Rosies attended the opening.
  • Overall, Rosie the Riveter’s propaganda campaign focused on several themes in order to get women to work and boost morale. These themes included patriotic duty, high earnings, the glamor of work, similarities between factory work and housework, and spousal pride. The campaign was designed to appeal to the average unmarried young woman and was supposed to instill a sense of patriotism and pride that would be reflected in her work efforts.

Style Inspired by Rosie the Riveter:

Outfit inspired by Rosie the Riveter

Product Information: Chambray Shirt, Shorts, Wrap Watch, Pearl Studs, Headband, Shoes, Wallet

It would be easy to recreate Rosie’s look in a literal way: red polka dot scarf, strong brows, and a chambray shirt. Done. However, because Rosie is so iconic, many people might see that outfit as more of a Rosie The Riveter costume.

To avoid looking like a Rosie replica, mix elements of the poster to create a fresh spin on this cultural symbol. To begin, throw on a light chambray shirt (an ongoing trend for the past few seasons). Roll the sleeves up and unbutton a few buttons for a summery look. If you’re really feeling daring, tie the bottom of your shirt for a vintage-y feel. Incorporate red shorts to stay within the poster’s color scheme and to show off your American pride. Cream-colored TOMS top off the patriotic look and are a comfortable, cute, and practical summer shoe. Finish up with simple accessories that won’t get in the way of your adventures.

Of course, the most important element of this outfit is the headscarf. The one pictured above is cheetah, but feel free to express your own personality by trying on different colors. American Apparel and Free People recently started carrying wire-based scarves that are super easy to tie and will stay in place. I’d definitely recommend picking up one or two for this summer – I already did!

Your turn!

Rosie the Riveter, although a fictional character, embodied the attitudes and actions of empowered women during World War II. She started a social movement and began to bring up issues of equality and rights. Rosie has stood the test of time and is still just as iconic now as she was seventy years ago, memorialized on posters, magnets, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. Anytime you need a boost in morale, just take a look at determined Rosie and remember: you can do it!

What do you think about the cultural icon’s legacy? Was she simply a propaganda tool to encourage women to work or did Rosie help to change women’s position in society? Is she a good role model for women? What do you think of the “Rosie-inspired” outfit? Make sure to leave your thoughts in a comment!

11 thoughts on “Women in Power: Rosie the Riveter”

  1. Wow ashlee, you’re so lucky to have a family member who had a real part in history! I agree that most women who were already working in the shipyard were poor, but Rosie the Riveteer in particular was meant to target the not so poor women who were likely not already working, or towards already-working women to redirect their work efforts to the war in general. This being a war effort which, in the 1940’s, would have been largely directed and organized by men.

  2. I am so excited that you posted this! My great grandmother is 94 and she worked as a welder on the ship yard in Richmond, CA during the war. My family still leaves in Richmond & she is honored every year. I love this website & to see you guys acknowledge these amazing women makes me happy! My great grandmother still has her work badge from the shipyard!
    Also to address Phidias, just to clarify most of the women who worked in the ship yard were poor working women, not rich women.

  3. The war was a terrible thing, but it also helped women start to identify them selves
    and wanted more than before.

  4. Love Rosie! Even though women were encouraged to return home after the soldiers came back, I don’t think she was a phase. Once women learned what it felt like to work outside the home, I thin their mentality would have changed to inspire future generations for fight for more equality.

  5. To Zephyr – CF Editor the screen is now back to normal. It must have just been a freak thing.. thanks for the concern!

  6. I guess the concept of Rosie is good, but it really only targeted upper class women. Poor women have always worked throughout history.
    If you think about it, I guess you could say she was really only an invention of men who wanted women to work when it was convenient for their own pursuits.

    Cute outfits though.

  7. This is fantastic! I think even fictional characters can be great role models, and Rosie is a great one! This outfit is so lovely, and I’m thinking I’m going to get some head scarfs now 😉 Fantastic post!!


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