By Michael Messina
What do you picture in your head when you think of Rosie the Riveter? Is it the image to the right?
Recently I covered the Women Building California and the Nation conference in Sacramento and witnessed over 650 women of the trades from all over the country (and a few from Canada) come together in a fantastic display of solidarity and camaraderie. One image that cannot be avoided at such gatherings is that of the flexing woman in the red polka-dotted bandana proclaiming “We Can Do It!” Union workers are quite familiar with this image and often use it as a representation of the type of ethic that is overflowing in the world of organized labor. And they should. It’s the reason Labor 411 loves union-made products and services. But…
That is not Rosie the Riveter.
Well, at least not technically. Sure, we’re allowed to retroactively assign the name to her, but Norman Rockwell popularized that title with his portrayal of another, much more masculine version of the female factory worker during World War II. His image, which was published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in May 1943 (left), is fairly iconic as well and was immensely popular at the time. Rockwell’s inspiration seems to have come from a song titled ‘Rosie the Riveter’ that came out earlier that year. “All the day long, whether rain or shine / She's a part of the assembly line” reads the opening verse.
I was also surprised to find that Rockwell took some inspiration from Michelangelo. His rendition of the prophet Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling mirrors Rosie’s pose almost exactly (bottom right). The intention behind such a gesture I will leave to you to figure out.
But to learn a little more of the original image at hand we have to look back at the year before the Rockwell Rosie. The ’42 Rosie is credited to J. Howard Miller, whose propaganda poster was created for Westinghouse Electric. Designed to boost worker morale, the image was inspired by a photograph of real-life factory worker Geraldine Hoff. Ironically, she quit her job soon after the photo was taken.
But the spirit lives strong in the union and working women of today. And it shows in the value of their production. The morale at this year’s conference was just as high as when I went two years back, and however you think of Rosie, let it inspire you daily!