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Who was Rosie the Riveter?

On December 8, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Within the hour, Congress approved that declaration and almost immediately, the country prepared to go to war. As men joined the Armed Forces and were sent overseas, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recognized that there would soon be a major shortage of workers to provide the necessary supplies to fight and win the war. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson called upon the War Department to mobilize what he called “…the largest and potentially the finest single source of labor available today—the vast reserve of woman power.” President Roosevelt gave the newly established federal propaganda agency, the Office of War Information, a new assignment: to encourage women to do their patriotic war duty by taking jobs outside the home. American media took up the challenge.

The song sung by The Four Vagabonds “Rosie the Riveter” was heard on radios across America starting in February of 1943. Written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, the song may have been inspired by Rosalind Palmer Walter, a 19-year-old young riveter who worked on Corsair fighter planes. (Loeb’s widow later said that this was not the case, “Rosie” and “riveter” were picked for alliteration rather than for a specific person.). The idea caught on as women entered the workforce in droves, doing jobs they never expected to do.

cover of Rosie the Riveter sheet music lyrics to Rosie the Riveter

Sheet music cover for “Rosie the Riveter” Smithsonian Institution, Air & Space Museum

image of Rosie the Riveter

There were two iconic images of Rosie the Riveter. One was drawn by J. Howard Miller around 1942 for Westinghouse and produced by the War Production Co-Ordinating Committee. It was entitled “We Can Do It!” and was not originally associated with anyone named Rosie nor was it circulated outside of Westinghouse factories at the time. Since 1982, it appeared in a Washington Post Magazine article and has become associated with Rosie the Riveter.

image of Rosie the Riveter

The other image was entitled “Rosie the Riveter” and was painted by Norman Rockwell for the cover of the May 29, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, eighty years ago this year. Mary Doyle Keefe, a telephone operator from Vermont, posed for this version which was more widely circulated during the war. This image inspired many women to join in the war effort.

By the end of the war, nearly 20 million American women were in the workforce, an increase of nearly 10 million in five years. These Rosies did everything from building ships, airplanes and munitions to running streetcars, buses, and trains. Some Rosies were pilots, ferrying airplanes overseas, others assisted in decoding enemy intelligence. When the war was over, they lost their jobs and Rosie seemed to disappear. For some, it was a relief as balancing long working hours and childcare was difficult. Others resented it; they realized that women were capable of holding their own in the working world and they appreciated the money and extra freedom having a job entailed. These women planted the seed of Rosie’s “we can do it” attitude in their daughters and granddaughters, which led to major social changes in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s.

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