The real “Rosie the Riveter” –the woman behind the infamous WWII “We Can Do It!” poster– died quietly in her sleep recently. Her name was Naomi Parker Fraley. She was 96.
Fraley never wore a uniform but she made an indelible impact on the U.S. military over the years nonetheless.
You’ve likely seen the poster with its iconic portrayal of a woman, wearing coveralls and an Ordnance Department Women Ordnance Worker (WOW) bandana on her head. She flexes her bicep and shows women of the WWII era–and beyond– that their contributions matter.
The ubiquitous poster was designed by J. Howard Miller and based on a photograph taken of Fraley in 1942 on an Alameda Naval Air Station factory floor. It was originally produced in 1943 by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and displayed in its factories to encourage more women to join the wartime labor force.
The poster was only displayed by Westinghouse for a period of two weeks in February 1943. It would be many years later that Rosie, as we know her today, would become such a celebrity.
Miller’s poster was far less well-known during the war itself than the image of a female worker created by a much more famous artist: Norman Rockwell. Published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Rockwell’s painting portrays a woman in a blue jumpsuit with a rivet gun in her lap, a sandwich in her hand and a copy of “Mein Kampf” under her foot. Her lunchbox bears the name Rosie.
For years, people mistakenly believed a Michigan woman named Geraldine Hoff Doyle was the model for the poster. Doyle, who worked briefly as a metal presser in a factory in 1942, saw a reprinted photograph of a bandanna-clad woman working at an industrial lathe in the 1980’s, and believed it to be her younger self; she later linked this photo to Miller’s famous poster and the media followed suit. An early example of fake news.
Naomi Parker Fraley was finally identified as the more likely inspiration for the real Rosie in 2016 thanks to efforts by historian James Kimble. Fraley believed the Rosie of legend had been based on her for some time, but no one believed her until Kimble. Doubt still remains as to who the true inspiration might have been since the artist died in 2004 without ever confirming.
In the 1980s, the poster resurfaced and was widely reprinted on T-shirts and a wide array of other merchandise. The resurgence likely came from several factors, including budget cuts, which led the National Archives to license the image to sell souvenirs and raise money; the 40th anniversary of World War II; and the continuing push for women’s rights. Rosie consequently became a symbol of the feminist movement.
The image of Rosie the Riveter has also been adapted over the years in pinup style. A quick search on Pinterest will lead to hundreds of pro pin-up sites with Rosie as inspiration. Pinup nose art was a point of pride for WWII aircraft and even the ordinance they dropped. Pinup girls are generally not seen in today’s military as they were in the past due to a change in attitudes on political correctness. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t still serve as inspiration.
A Marine aviator who prefers to remain anonymous said “We would certainly have pinups on our birds now if we could. Ok, maybe not exactly a pinup. But a badass woman like Rosie would be cool. She reminds me of a lot of Marines I know.”
Rosie meant a lot of things to a lot of people. An icon of female empowerment. A partner in the war effort. The personification of all the women at home, in combat support roles and serving right alongside their male counterparts. So thank you for the inspiration Naomi Parker Fraley. And rest well Rosie.
Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia