Rosie the Riveter: An icon that changed the American workplace

 

3.31 min read

Rosie the Riveter, a woman with a red polkadot scarf pulling up her sleeve and flexing her arm.

By Christine Martinez, US Navy Senior Chief (Ret), programs and partnerships manager, Office of Military and Veteran Affairs

Few images defined a generation as powerfully as this one did. The spotted kerchief. The rolled-up sleeve with a firm fist. The determined features of a woman ready for war.

This was Rosie the Riveter.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Commemorations will happen across the country, with grave and momentous milestones that will forever be etched in world memory.

There was the liberation of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. There was the self-inflicted end to Adolf Hitler in an underground bunker in Berlin. There was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan. There were victory days in Europe and Japan as Axis Forces signed an unconditional surrender.

And yet, with these heart-rendering reminders of war, it can be easy to forget a story of success that became one of the lasting legacies of World War II. And it happened right here on the home front.

It all started with a song called "Rosie the Riveter."

It Started with A Tune

"Rosie the Riveter," penned by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942 and released in 1943, became a nationwide hit during the war[1]. Its jaunty, upbeat lyrics praised Rosie for her work ethic and pride, as well as for the impact her work had on her boyfriend, Charlie, who was serving as a Marine on the front lines.

The songwriters drew inspiration from Rosalind P. Walter, an heiress who worked night shifts to help build B-24 bombers.

The song was meant to comment on a tidal change in the U.S. workforce. With millions of American men drafted into active duty, every sector of the U.S. economy faced a labor shortage.

Consequently, the nation experienced a flood of women into the workplace, doing what had traditionally been considered "men's jobs."

Evans' and Loeb's hit song kicked off a cultural movement. In 1940, an estimated 28 percent of women held jobs, according to the National Bureau of Economic Statistics. Five years later, in 1945, that number had swelled to more than 34 percent[2]. This included factory steelworkers and the “Rosies” who riveted sheets of metal together to build war fighter airplanes.


“Rosie could do a man's work, and do it well. Real women across the country were discovering the same.”

Christine Martinez, US Navy Senior Chief (Ret), programs and partnerships manager, Office of Military and Veteran Affairs


Rosie Gets Her Closeup

In 1943, Westinghouse Company released an inspirational poster by artist J. Howard Miller depicting a determined woman in work clothes and a red polka-dot kerchief, flexing her arm, with a word bubble proclaiming "We Can Do It!"

This image became iconic of a war effort — and the civilian sacrifice on the home front — that culminated in the successful end to the war 75 years ago. This poster came to represent “Rosie the Riveter.”

Norman Rockwell painted an homage to Rosie the Riveter, which ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in 1943[1]. His version featured Rosie holding a rivet gun, and a lunch pail bearing her name. And in 1944, Rosie the Riveter became a Hollywood film directed by Joseph Santley and starring Jane Frazee[2].

Evans and Loeb's lyrics tout that Rosie's production output was rated "E" (for (Excellent), sowing the seeds for her importance as a feminist icon. Rosie could do a man's work, and do it well[3]. Real women across the country were discovering the same.

After the war ended, many women left or were laid off from the workforce. But the historic impact of their labor had already been made. From factories to offices, women had proven their worth as employees. They had a whole new story to tell their daughters about "women's work

As the historic spotlight falls upon the end of World War II this year, it will honor soldiers and civilians alike. It will highlight the 16 million American men and women who served in the armed forces, bringing an end to aggression that affected nations on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific.[4]

And it will highlight the civilians on the home front, who fueled the war effort by answering the call that resonates even today: “We Can Do It!”

Christine Martinez is programs & partnership manager, UOPX Office of Military & Veteran Affairs, and a retired U.S. Navy Boatswain’s mate senior chief. She used her GI Bill to earn a bachelor’s at ASU. She also earned a Marketing Certificate at University of Phoenix.

 

[1] https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/rosie-the-riveter

[2] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037235/

[3] https://eisenhowerfoundation.net/DocumentCenter/View/202/Song-Lyrics---Rosie-the-Riveter-PDF

[4] https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/wwii-veteran-statistics