“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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Naomi Parker Fraley, The Original “We Can Do It!” Gal

What if I told you the “real” Rosie the Riveter was alive and well and living in California? Meet Naomi Parker Fraley, over 90 years young! She is the real inspiration behind the famous “We Can Do It!” WWII poster. Here’s the story…

“We Can Do It!” is a WWII-era propaganda poster created for Westinghouse Corporation by artist J. Howard Miller, and has in the years since become a pop culture icon commonly interpreted as an image of Rosie the Riveter. Although little-seen during WWII, this poster is much-celebrated in our time, and its popularity continues to grow as it appeals to new generations. And although not originally labelled in any way as “Rosie the Riveter” the “We Can Do It!” gal has now become arguably the most well-recognized and definitive image associated with Rosie the Riveter.

A Press Photo, And A Mistaken Identity

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J. Howard Miller’ famous poster for Westinghouse, commonly referred to as “Rosie the Riveter.”

Many news outlets have memorialized Michigan war worker Geraldine Hoff Doyle as the inspiration for the famous “We Can Do It!” poster. These news stories relate that Mrs. Doyle recognized herself in a 1942 UPI press photo of a female worker wearing a polka dot bandanna, a photo that had been posited as the possible inspiration used by Miller in creating his famous poster.

But what if I told you that inspirational photo is not of Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who has sadly passed away, but a photo of war worker Naomi Parker Fraley, who is alive and well and living in California? I bet you’d be as happy as I am to know that “the real Rosie the Riveter” is still with us!

Of course, there’s more than one WWII gal who can lay claim to the title “the real Rosie the Riveter,” meaning she played a critical role in defining the iconic character. Most often cited is our own Rose Will Monroe of the Willow Run Bomber Plant, famously featured as “the real-life Rosie the Riveter” in WWII short films promoting War Bonds. Then there’s Mary Doyle Keefe, who, though neither Rosie nor a riveter, was the live model for Norman Rockwell’s well-known 1943 “Rosie the Riveter” cover for the Saturday Evening Post. During WWII, then as now, the public and press were always on the lookout for a real-life gal that they could think of as “the REAL Rosie the Riveter.” So when Rose Bonavita and her partner shot a record number of rivets on the night shift at an aircraft factory, she was, of course, hailed in the press as “the real Rosie the Riveter.” And, soon after the release of the wartime hit song, “Rosie the Riveter,” the press went looking and found patriotic debutante Rosalind Palmer Walter working in an aircraft factory, and dubbed her… you guessed it… “the real Rosie the Riveter.” Real Rosies, all!

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The famous UPI photo said to have inspired the “We Can Do It!” poster. The photo depicts Naomi Parker Fraley.

For many years, Geraldine Hoff Doyle was routinely included in this group of “real Rosies,” whose face was the inspiration for the “We Can Do It!” poster which has become so strongly associated with Rosie the Riveter. This connection had its genesis in 1984, when Mrs. Doyle saw a reprint of a UPI photo (pictured at left) of a young war worker in polka-dots in Modern Maturity magazine and “recognized herself” in both the photo, and the poster (which was in the process of being rediscovered and gaining fame throughout the 80s.) Mrs. Doyle had worked briefly during WWII at American Broach in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a metal press machine, and recalled that one day a news photographer snapped photos of her working… and she was certain this was one of the photos. Overeager journalists picked up the story without fact-checking the identity of the young woman in the photo, which was probably much harder to research in the pre-internet 80s and early-internet 90s.

However, with increasing digitization of historic materials, the identity of the girl in the 1942 UPI photo has recently been proven to be another woman, Naomi Parker Fraley. Corbis has cataloged the photo online as part of the Bettman Historical Archives, and the National Parks Service Rosie the Riveter Museum features the actual 1942 news clipping in its online collection. The photo can be found in March, 1942 issues of a least 4 major daily newspapers digitized online: The Oakland (CA) Post Enquirer, the Twin Falls (ID) Times News, the Milwaukee (WI) Journal, and the Albany (OR) Democrat-Herald. In each case, the photo is clearly captioned as Naomi Parker (not Geraldine Hoff), taken at Alameda Naval Air Station (not American Broach) in California (not Michigan.) In addition, the Twin Falls caption describes the machine as a vertical turret lathe (and not the metal stamping press that Mrs. Doyle worked on.)

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Naomi Parker Fraley, who was surprised to learn that a UPI press photo of her taken in 1942 is considered to be the inspiration for this famous poster (photo credit: John Fraley.)

Since Mrs. Doyle never claimed to have met or sat for J. Howard Miller, but only claimed to recognize herself in the UPI war worker photo… and since the UPI photo is proven beyond a doubt to depict Naomi Parker Fraley, we must conclude that Mrs. Doyle cannot be the inspiration for the famous poster. That claim to “Rosie” fame now transfers to Naomi Parker Fraley.

Mrs. Fraley recalls her father walking her down to the Alameda naval air base in early 1942 to apply for a war job. He told her that she needed to do her part for the war. She was part of a vanguard of 50 women hired to work in the machine shop there, with plans to soon hire 300 more. Shortly after she was hired, in April of 1942, Alameda was where the USS Hornet docked to load up the 16 B-25 bombers that were soon to take part in the famous Doolittle raid on the Japanese mainland.

(Note:  Please do keep in mind that by taking war production jobs as a youngster of 17 as a metal-stamper and then a timekeeper, Geraldine Hoff Doyle like many women and girls served with valor on the Home Front during WWII, and she undoubtedly made an honest mistake regarding the photograph at a time when the all-seeing internet was not available. Geraldine and Naomi, both stunning brunettes, did resemble each other, as well as the face on the poster, so the mistake on Mrs. Doyle’s part is understandable.)

So Why Is This Important?

“We Can Do It!” is a beloved cultural icon. The press and public interest in putting a real face and name to the iconic character of Rosie the Riveter remains high, as evidenced by the frenzy of interest in Mrs. Doyle’s passing in 2010, and the passing of Rockwell’s sitter, Mary Doyle Keefe in 2015. How much more satisfying to celebrate one of these “real Rosies” who played a critical a part in defining the beloved icon, while she is still with us, as Naomi Parker Fraley is, and can share her recollections?

The idea of a possible or likely real-life inspiration for “We Can Do It!” gal has taken hold of the public imagination and resulted in a flood of news articles over the years. The erroneous identification of Mrs. Doyle as the subject of the photo, and therefore inspiration for the poster, has been reported as fact on NPR, the New York Times, the UK Guardian, the Washington Post… and continues in news articles still to this day. It seems important to correct an error regarding something that is clearly very important to people. If anyone is to be credited as Miller’s inspiration, it is Naomi Parker Fraley, and the best part is she is still alive to share her experiences with a generation that is keenly interested!

I’ll be the first to admit that the relationship between the UPI photo and the famous poster was only ever conjectural, and we will never know for sure since J. Howard Miller died before anyone could ask him. But as to the identity of the worker in the UPI photo, case closed, so let’s set the record straight where we can. With members of WWII’s Greatest Generation lost every day, and young girls daily looking up Rosie the Riveter and “We Can Do It!” for inspiration and to write reports, it’s important to get the story right.

Many WWII Rosie the Riveters Are Still Among Us… Let’s Celebrate Them!

Of course, the larger, more important truth is that all of these ladies, and many more besides, are “The Real Rosie the Riveter.”

Naomi and Geraldine… and Mary, Rose, and Rosamund…and Ruth, Ada Wyn, Marj, Vivan, Mallie, Shirley, Frances, Rachel Mae, Cookie, Angeline, Eva, Elma, Pauline, Margaret, Loraine, Helen, Betty & Lenore, Blanche, Louise, Mary Lou, Carol… the list goes on and on!

Any plucky American woman or girl whose work helped the Allied effort in WWII was dubbed, then as now, “Rosie the Riveter.” Whether she was Wendy the Welder, Tillie the Typist, Betty the Bucker, or Acetylene Annie, she’s a “Rosie.”

She might have conducted a streetcar, operated an elevator, run a scrap metal drive, rolled bandages, or played in an all-girl baseball team or swing band, she’s a “Rosie.”

They’re in their 90s now, but they are still among us, with wisdom to share and stories to tell. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting so many, and love them all. You will, too!

Get together and find these women in your community and celebrate them. Thank them for their service on the Home Front, and for breaking down gender barriers so your daughters can choose any career they wish. Ask them what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor, and what it was like to live through a time when the whole world was at war. Ask them what it was like to be young then, and what they did for fun. You’ll never regret taking time out to honor your heroes.

And you’ll always remember the day you met “Rosie!”


Learn about the nationwide effort to save Rosie’s legendary Willow Run BomberPlant here.

Learn more about “We Can Do It!” girl Naomi Parker Fraley at naomiparkerfraley.com

Learn more about the complete history of the beloved “Rosie the Riveter” WWII propaganda character at PopHistoryDig.com

Learn about Rose Will Monroe of movie newsreel fame, the woman most often credited as “the Real Rosie the Riveter.”

Socialite and philanthropist Rosalind Palmer Walter is still alive and head of an eponymous charitable foundation, and she sits on the boards of many prestigious organizations.

Rose Bonavita Hickey was interviewed in the 1980s about her experience as a record-setting riveter and her return to homemaking after the war, and you can read her bio here.

To read some amazing stories from living Willow Run and Detroit WWII Rosies, click here.

Real Rosie Elinor Otto Celebrates Birthday, Still Riveting at 94

One of my favorite people that I’ve never met, Elinor Otto, celebrated her 94th birthday last Saturday, while at the same time, on the other side of the country, we were meeting and talking with real Willow Run Rosies at the Arsenal of Democracy Conference and Willow Run Open House.

Mrs. Otto has been recently featured in the national media, and America just can’t seem to get enough of her. Talk about riveting!

At her birthday party, she was feted by family, friends new and old, and a 93-year-old Tuskegee airman. Yes, I said Tuskegee airman! Rosies from all over America called to wish her a happy birthday.

Can’t beat that, can you? Happy Birthday, Elinor Otto!

Red about her birthday celebration in this LA Times article.

Two Real Rosie the Riveters Meet!

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Holy cow, I got to be a fly on the wall while real WWII Rosie the Riveters met and chatted about the Willow Run Bomber Plant.

The first thing they asked each other was, what section were you in? The answers were rapid-fire… “9-24,” said Vivian. “9-46,” said Frances. And this would not be the first time I’ve heard a Rosie rattle off her work station of 70 years ago without hesitation. Vivian even remembers her worker’s badge number.

Vivian was from nearby Belleville, so she didn’t have a long bus ride like other Rosies we’ve met who came from places like Inkster, Detroit, and Dearborn. She began working at the Plant as an 18-year-old, along with her girlfriend, in late February or early March of 1941, before the Plant was even finished. There was no hiring office yet, so they had to go to the Ford River Rouge Plant to get hired in, on a Friday, and they started work in the sewing section the following Monday. They worked on the third floor balcony because the ground floor was still under construction. She and her friend were the 3rd and 4th women hired to work at the Plant.

Now, the guys had worked with women before (as we learned from Charles Hyde at the Arsenal of Democracy Conference earlier in the day, as much as 8% of the manufacturing workforce was female prior to WWII, mostly doing industrial sewing tasks and making wiring harnesses) but, as Vivian laughingly said, these were “old” women in their 30s. The men were all abuzz about the “fresh, young girls” to the point where security would escort them to the bathroom and back, and they were told to travel in pairs. They didn’t want the girls to get hassled and frightened off.

Vivian said, “When my girlfriend and I would go to get a drink of water, it was amazing how many of those men would suddenly get thirsty, too!” Gradually, more and more women were hired in as the men went off to war, until, as we learned at the Conference, 40% of mighty Willow Run’s workforce was female.

Since the Open House event at the Plant was winding down, I had a chance to sit and really talk with Vivian for a while. I asked her why she went to work at Willow Run after high school, and she said, “Well, you had to have a job.” And also, that she wanted to be a WAC, but her family didn’t like the idea, so she thought serving on the home front by working at Willow Run would be the next best thing.

All of the real Rosies we’ve talked to went to work with a sense of pride and patriotism, and felt they were supporting their country and their loved ones who were fighting overseas. Vivian said there were bulletin boards at Willow Run where they’d post pictures of their men in the service. Morale at that plant must have been through the roof. She recalled a boy named Elmer who worked in her section, who was a very sweet kid and a favorite of the ladies. When he was called up to service, the older ladies cried… it was like watching yet another son go off to war.

She described war rationing to me, and she recalled VE Day (Victory in Europe, May 6, 1945) at Willow Run—they closed the plant early to let workers go home and celebrate. Then they went back in to work the next day. There was still a war on in the Pacific.

She described the sewing work she did on the B-24s at Willow Run. There was cloth covering the flight control surfaces: ailerons, elevators, etc., and there was padding to cover protrusions on the inside of the plane. She went into incredible detail that I couldn’t follow, describing exactly how cloth was cut to go around bolts and rivets, pulled taught and painted to create a smooth surface.

Vivian worked at Willow Run building B-24 Liberator bombers until June 1945, when they stopped production at the plant and sent the workers home, which was in between VE and VJ Day (August 15.) Her top pay at Willow Run was $1.15 per hour, which was darn good pay.

After the war, she found work at Ann Arbor Precision Parts, making radio transistors. The pay did not compare to Willow Run. After a while, Kaiser-Frazer, who bought the plant from Ford, called her up, along with the other Ford workers, to apply for positions on the re-tooled line, building Henry J cars. They called her back several times before a position opened up that appealed to her, as a driver in the shipping department. After the cars were built, she’d drive them to a staging area for loading onto freight cars, or perhaps to another building to be fitted for the British market. Before production at Kaiser-Frazer really got going, sometimes they’d drive one car, and be handed brooms to spend the rest of the day sweeping the lot. Again, the workforce was mostly men, but Vivian said the guys were wonderful, and she became great friends with many of them, and their wives, too.

Vivian loved working at the plant, both during and after the war, “We had so much fun!”

A Real Rosie the Riveter

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We were delighted to discover real, elderly Rosie the Riveter Frances attending the Open House at the Willow Run Bomber Plant that followed the Arsenal of Democracy Conference.

Frances, who is 91, worked at the plant during WWII, making B-24 Liberator bombers on the assembly line. She lived in Detroit at the time, and it took an hour by bus to get to Ypsilanti, then another half hour to get to the Plant. She worked as a riveter there from 1940 (perhaps ’41?) until 1945, or “for the duration,” as they would say during the war.

The Tribute Rosies are looking forward to hopefully visiting her and spending some time with her over lunch, to hear more about her time in the Plant, her experience of the war, and to enjoy her company.

Real Rosie the Riveter Has B-24 Blueprint

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It’s always a special pleasure to meet a real, live Rosie the Riveter, and we were delighted to discover Margaret attending the Arsenal of Democracy Conference.

Margaret, who will be 89 this November, worked in the blueprints department of the Willow Run Bomber Plant during World War II. She told us that she had one of the original engineering drawings of the B-24’s construction, and her son was able to call it up on his iPad.

The drawing is incredibly detailed, really almost a work of art. When asked how she came by this artifact, she said, “I’m embarrassed to say, but I stole it! It was so beautiful, and drawn by hand, and was such a piece of history, that when the plant closed I folded it up and put it under my jacket and took it home.”

Her sons grew up with the drawing on the wall of their room, and it remains a family treasure.

Heck, that’s not stealing, that’s historical preservation! We encouraged the family to contact Yankee Air Museum’s Oral History Project, so Margaret’s recollections, and maybe a scan of her engineering drawing, could be preserved in the Museum’s archives.

A Gentleman Who Worked at Willow Run With the Rosies

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After today’s Arsenal of Democracy Conference at the Yankee Air Museum, the public was given an opportunity to step inside the Willow Run Bomber Plant to see it one last time before most of it is demolished to make way for a connected-vehicle test facility.

It was also announced today that demolition would be configured to allow Yankee 5 more months to raise the funds necessary to preserve a portion of the Plant as their new home.

Very exciting news, and a very exciting day!

I met and talked to three real, elderly “Rosie the Riveters” who worked at the Plant, and one gentleman, pictured above, Ivan, originally from Indiana. He worked in the Willow Run Bomber Plant as a young man, working on the line, building B-24s, “with a Rosie on each side, until the Ohio draft board figured out where I was!”

Ivan has a great sense of humor, and as you can see by my big smile, I was utterly smitten with him.

Willow Run Rosies Make a Video

A wonderful group of people got together to help the Willow Run Rosies make this video.

Rosie Jane Vass was the producer and choreographer, and the star is Alison Beatty, the original “Tribute” Rosie.

Alison is a University of Michigan grad student who saw the Save The Willow Run Bomber Plant sign at the corner of Stadium and Jackson this past July, and drove by it several times before looking it up online to see what it was all about.

When she visited the website, and learned more, she thought two things. One, “This is really important and we have to save that Bomber Plant!” And two, “What would have made me look this up sooner?”

So she decided to dress as Rosie the Riveter, and stand next to the sign at rush hour. You can read more about Alison in a news article here.

Alison inspired the rest of us, and now we are a troupe of Tribute Rosies, dedicated to helping save a part of Willow Run to honor the Greatest Generation, for the benefit of future generations.

Also featured in the video are two 1942 WWII-era GPWs (Jeeps) owned by John Sanderson and Bob Schrock, and the Yankee Air Museum’s PB4Y, which was a very late model of the B-24, without the twin tails, produced for the Navy. It was the closest thing we could get. And the young Sanderson girls, as you can see, are simply adorable in the video.

The opening and closing shot is set in front of the two giant doors at the end of the assembly line, where the finished B-24 Liberators from the dual assembly lines would roll out onto the tarmac for gun and compass testing, and their maiden flights over Michigan.

Those doors still work perfectly, and are located in the part of the plant that we are trying to save as a new home for the Yankee Air Museum.

If you enjoyed this video, do your part to keep a little piece of the Willow Run Bomber Plant alive for future generations. $50 saves 1 sq. ft. of the Willow Run Bomber plant at www.savethebomberplant.org