“We Can Do It!” – The Making of an Icon

j-howard-miller-we-can-do-it-rosie-the-riveter-600pxHow and When did the “We Can Do It!” Poster Become Famous?

Although many sites and sources describe J. Howard Miller’s famous WWII-era “We Can Do It!” poster as government propaganda exhorting women to join the industrial workforce, seen by Americans everywhere, it was in fact neither.

This poster was actually seen by very few people during WWII and only became famous many decades later.

J. Howard Miller designed and illustrated this poster for Westinghouse, Inc. for display in their factories during a 2-week period in February of 1943. Westinghouse, like most manufacturing companies, had fully converted to war production by that time. The purpose of the poster was not to recruit women, as those who would see this poster would obviously already be employed at Westinghouse, but to boost worker morale and reduce absenteeism. Miller’s use of a female worker simply reflects that the government campaign to recruit women was already well underway, and women had become a fixture in the industrial workplace. And perhaps the purpose was also to encourage new women workers to stick with a difficult and unfamiliar job.

Much is made of the fact that the woman in the poster could not have been a riveter, since Westinghouse did not employ them, and therefore is not really “Rosie the Riveter.” However, we must remember that then, as now, “Rosie the Riveter” was the nickname and stand-in for any woman who took on the job of a man who had been called overseas. When Norman Rockwell painted his famous portrait of Rosie the Riveter for the Saturday Evening Post, he was clearly celebrating all women who took on a “man’s job” in service to their country, and using his plucky riveter to represent them all. So it’s entirely fair to call her Rosie, in my opinion! I don’t look at photos of the amazing women welders in California and think, “They’re not Rosie the Riveter.” They most certainly are!

Rosie the Riveter is a great sound bite and a catchy shorthand term that still resonates today… not a specific job description. It’s a term coined during the war to encompass all women war workers, and remains so today.

An Icon is Born

With a print run of no more than 2,000 posters, and possibly less than 1,000 posters, and display only in Westinghouse factories, and for only a 2-week period, there is no way this poster could have been famous or well-known during the war.

So when did it become an icon?

This poster languished in obscurity, with likely only a few examples remaining in archives and attics, for decades.

However, by the end of the 20th century, it was perhaps one of the most recognized and celebrated works of art in the US and the world. How did that happen?

“Rosie” Resurfacing in the 70s – Maybe, Maybe Not

Many sources cite the resurgence of interest in this image as coinciding with the Women’s Movement of the 1970’s. The only credible source for this idea I can find is author Penny Coleman, in her book, Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II, originally published in 1995. We’ll examine this idea in more detail later.

A more likely timeline for the reappearance of this famous “Rosie” is the 1980s, when the first wave of the feminism was already in full swing. Researchers James Kimble and Lester Olsen, who have done extensive research on this poster, cannot find reference to it in either scholarly literature or mass media before the 1980s. They specifically mention Leila Rupp’s 1978 research on the topic, Mobilizing Women for War, wherein she discusses several versions of “Rosie’s” image but does not mention the Miller poster. They conclude that it is because the poster had not resurfaced yet, and Rupp was not aware of it.

In fact, the earliest mention or reproduction of “We Can Do It!” that Kimble and Olsen could find is in a March 1982 issue of the Washington Post Magazine, where it was featured as a reproduction image available from the National Archives. This one mention would hardly have catapulted it to fame.

The next mention Kimble and Olsen found was in a 1985 article in U.S. News and World Report.

But somehow, between these widely-spaced 1980s mentions, and the turn of the 21st century, Rosie became ubiquitous. But, when and how?

Coleman is probably correct in that public awareness of the image had its roots in its use by the Women’s Movement as a symbol of female capability and power. If Coleman, writing in 1995, and a feminist and a scholar herself, was aware of the image as a having a history of use within the Movement, we must take her word for it. But perhaps by 1995, she couldn’t be sure of when the poster first became associated with the Women’s Movement, and dialed it back to the Movement’s entry into popular awareness in the 1970s. According to Kimble and Olsen’s search of the public record, the feminists are more likely to have adopted the image in the 1980s.

The 1990s – Everything’s Coming Up Rosie!

March-1994-cover.JPGThe real tidal wave of “Rosie Awareness,” and mass reproduction of the “We Can Do It!” image, came in the 1990s, with its publication on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine’s March, 1994 issue.

The image’s undeniable power spoke to viewers everywhere, and since it was owned at this point by the National Archives (the rights having been transferred by Miller’s estate) and not under copyright, everyone from activist organizations to t-shirt sellers to event promoters was able to reproduce it and even alter it without fear of copyright infringement. This is when the image that has come to be most closely associated with Rosie the Riveter really took off.

Sources for this article include:
Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War by Penny Colman originally published in 1995. Great book, get it on Amazon by clicking here.

Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” Poster by James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olsen, originally published in the Journal of Rhetoric and Public Affairs, 2006


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