Rosie the Riveter was a symbol for the feminist movement for decades, but behind the poster was a real woman whose name was barely known.

Rosie the Riveter,  the now-iconic woman pulling up her sleeve to show off her flexed bicep while staring determinately outwards, has always been somewhat of a mystery. The image was first seen on a poster created by artist J. Howard Miller as commissioned by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1943 for use in its factories as a recruitment tool to encourage women to join the wartime manufacturing work force. At the time, Rosie wasn’t known as Rosie – she was simply one woman on a poster proclaiming “We Can Do It!”  Its initial shelf life was short, with the picture being taken down and replaced with another in only two weeks.

The name ‘Rosie the Riveter’ was known during the war as the title of a popular song recorded by Kay Kyser. Around the same time of the “We Can Do It!” poster, Norman Rockwell created a similarly themed painting to Miller’s offering, with his strong female figure having a rivet gun in her lap while she stomped on a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’. Beside her was a lunchbox with the ‘Rosie’ written on it.

The two images became part of 1940’s history, but it was Rockwell’s that is often attributed with helping to significantly bolster the American labor force with new female recruitments. However, it was Miller’s visual that made a comeback starting in the 1980s after the U.S. National Archives began licensing the image to help raise funds to offset budget cutbacks. It soon began appearing on everything from coffee cups to t-shirts, and was adopted as a symbol of the ongoing feminist movement. As sometimes happens over time, paths crossed and two similar ideas merged into one with Miller’s “We Can Do It” model being branded with the Rockwell character’s name of ‘Rosie’. The rest, as they say, is history.

Story by Jay Moon