Everyone is familiar with the image of Rosie the Riveter - a fierce-looking brunette woman, hair back in a red bandana, rolling up a sleeve over her flexed bicep under a text bubble that reads matter-of-factly "We Can Do It!" Coming out of World War II, Rosie's image was synonymous with the women who stepped up to work in factories and mills when their husbands, brothers, and fathers went off to fight for freedom. Rosie's power and inspiration didn't stop when the war was over, though - the effect that this iconic character has had on women, the workforce, and the world is as strong today as it ever was.
The Changing Tide
Prior to WWII, it was virtually unheard of for women to serve in the military or work in the production of military-based equipment or materials. In fact, the mere notion of a woman working outside the home in any capacity (aside from domestic work) was considered an oddity. But then came World War II, and America found its workforce leaving their jobs to go fight overseas. The wives, daughters, and mothers they left behind stepped up to take their place.
According to United States government statistics, women’s employment increased from 5.1 million in 1939 to more than 7.25 million in 1943, an increase of 26 percent to 36 percent of all working-aged women. By 1943, 46 percent of all women between the ages of 14 and 59- and 90 percent of all able-bodied single women between the ages of 18 and 40- were working in industrial sectors supporting the war effort or enrolled in National Service.
By 1945, nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home. In addition, WACs (Women’s Army Corps) and WAVES (the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were launched, both with full military status. At the end of the war, there were more than 100,000 WACs and 6,000 female officers.
The Birth of Rosie
This powerful chapter in history needed a face - and thus, the image of Rosie the Riveter was born. In 1942, Pennsylvanian artist J. Howard Miller was hired to create a poster aimed at recruiting female workers for Westinghouse Electric Corp. Many women, real and fictional, inspired Miller's conception of Rosie the Riveter, including a real-life munitions worker. Rosie's iconic phrase- “We Can Do It!”- quickly became synonymous with the many working women who kept America going when the men left for war.
Rosie's star continued to rise, and in 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published a cover image of Rosie created by the beloved artist Norman Rockwell. The cover depicted Rosie with an American flag in the background behind her, and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf firmly placed under her feet.
Miller's original poster still holds the proud position as one of the most triumphant recruitment tools in American history - and certainly the most classic image of working women in the WWII era.
Today and Beyond
Fast-forward almost 75 years and 74.6 million American women now hold civilian jobs, making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce.
The period of Rosie the Riveter and the influx of women into traditionally male-held sectors of the workforce helped expand many people’s perception of what women could and should do. Today, women no longer have to choose between career and the responsibilities of being a wife and mother. They can- and do- have it all.
The WWII era paved the way for women to take ownership of their lives and careers, be more outspoken without fear of retaliation, and achieve success in many fields that were once dominated by men. To this day, the rallying cry of “We Can Do It!” continues to inspire generation after generation of proud, strong women.
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