A model for one of the most famous and influential images in American history died last week. Naomi Parker Fraley was the muse for the “Rosie the Riveter” poster, depicting a World War II-era woman rolling up her sleeves and working in the factory while the men were away. This iconic image of the attractive woman with her hair done up in a stylish handkerchief claiming “We Can Do It!” has survived decades to stand out as one of the most recognizable female images in our country.
Over the decades, this image’s meaning has undergone a fascinating transformation. Today, Rosie the Riveter is considered an unequivocally feminist symbol, urging women to stand up and come together to face difficult challenges. This idea is reinforced by outspoken celebrities such as Beyoncé dressing up as Rosie, and signs in feminist women’s movements displaying Rosie. She has come to represent the power and strength of women in the modern era, but in the decades following World War II, the original purpose of her image was propaganda to keep the American economy afloat, not to advance women’s rights. This original political intents makes her current symbol as a feminist icon more controversial.
During World War II, when many men were drafted into service, the United States suddenly had an economic need for working women. While the previously ascribed place for women was in the home being housewives, they were thrust from their homes into the working world in order to keep the U.S. economy afloat during those dire times. Rosie the Riveter, with her sleeves rolled up, urged women to fulfill this new government need by stepping outside the household and helping the country.
However, at the time, this was only championing new expectations that were being put on women. Now, according to society, the “perfect” woman was expected to raise children at home and work in the factories, all while maintaining a clearly feminine and attractive look that Rosie embodies in her perfectly done makeup and hair. Instead of empowering women, it was a symbol used to help women ascribe to the new temporary status quo of wartime, where women were urged to be patriotic and help their country in need.
Right after the war, the official story of Rosie is that she quit her job at the factory and returned home to take care of her husband, as a good woman should. But this was a reality that many women didn’t want to face at the time. After years of finally being paid decent wages for their work, government icons such as Rosie the Riveter tried to usher women back into being housewives, despite the fact that many weren’t eager to return.
This left many single mothers and women of color, who were already working before the war, without the decent paying jobs that they had relied on during the last few years. Rosie, a symbol of strength, rising up and joining the workforce while the men were gone, turned out only to be a symbol of compliance with the needs of the government that ultimately served men. She symbolized a temporary deviation from the norm, not a push for permanent equality.
But, this doesn’t mean that she didn’t set steps in motion for women’s rights. After the war, women had proven their capabilities, and this catalyzed a demand over the following years that improved equality in the workplace. This may be why, as the decades passed, her original image as government propaganda faded as it was replaced with a symbol of female strength and empowerment.
Today, Rosie the Riveter is still as relevant as she was 70 years ago, just in a vastly different way. The survival of this artifact is due to her adaptation by the non-governmental feminist movement. And while this may tarnish her reputation for some, it simply proves the ability of images to be seized and utilized by various causes. As Naomi Parker Fraley died, she took with her one of the remaining people who saw Rosie fulfill her original purpose and go on to leave a legacy that exploded from the spark of her iconic image.
Claire Harvey is a third-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.