Tuesday, September 23, 2014
September 23, 2014: Women and War: Rosie the Riveter
[Some of the more complex American histories and stories revolve around women and war. In this week’s series, I’ll highlight and AmericanStudy five such stories—but this is just the tip of the iceberg, for these stories and overall, and so as always I’d love to hear your responses and thoughts!]
On two ways to complicate and deepen one of our more famous images.
I would argue that there are few 20th century images or icons that have achieved and sustained more prominence in our collective consciousness than Rosie the Riveter. Initially created as part of a propaganda effort, the War Advertising Council’s Women in War Jobs Campain, Rosie has transcended that specific origin and starting point to become a multi-layered icon: a Greatest Generation complement to celebratory images of World War II soldiers; a rejection of social associations of women with anti-war perspectives and efforts (on which more later this week); and a feminist argument for women’s capabilities, in the workforce and in general. However we analyze her, Rosie is an inescapable part of both her era and 20th century American history.
Yet as is so often the case, our perspective on Rosie is at best a simplified and at worst a troublingly inaccurate one. For one thing, as this article details at length, Rosie was not created through the WAC’s ad campaign (the name Rosie was not associated with that famous picture until the 1980s) but rather through a series of distinct cultural texts and moments, including a 1942 song that (it seems) first used the character’s name. Moreover, she was brought to national prominence through an image that differs in striking ways from the “We Can Do It” ad: Norman Rockwell’s 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover, which depicts a far more overtly working-class Rosie, one situated amongst the implements and grime of her labor just as much as she is the propagandistic details (the American flag backdrop, the copy of Mein Kampf under her foot). There are certainly parallels between Rockwell’s image and the WAC ad, including a central emphasis on strength as depicted in Rosie’s visible and impressive arms; but at the very least the Rockwell image should be as prominent a part of our collective memories as the ad.
Yet Rockwell’s Rosie and the ad’s figure share another feature, one easily overlooked but well worth noting: they are both white. It’s in response to that feature that Betty Reid Soskin, the oldest working National Park Ranger and a guide at Richmond, California’s Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park, discusses her own World War II work experiences as outside of the Rosie narrative: “Rosie the Riveter is a white woman’s story,” as she puts it in that first linked article. Of course I take Soskin’s point, and agree with her that remembering the triumphs of Rosie has made it easier for us to forget concurrent, complicating histories such as the 1944 Port Chicago mutiny. Yet just as the image of Rosie has been created and disseminated in particular ways, there’s no reason why we can’t create and remember a new version—one, for example, based on Soskin herself and the thousands of African American workers and women like her.
Next war story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other war stories you'd highlight?