Mary Doyle Keefe has died. The 92-year-old was, the AP reports, the model for "Rosie the Riveter," the Norman Rockwell painting that served as the cover for the Saturday Evening Post in May of 1943, then as an iconic symbol for wartime solidarity and the power of labor, and then later as a token for civil rights, feminism, and institutionalized spunk.
You would be forgiven, though, for thinking that the real-life Rosie the Riveter had already passed away. Rose Will Monroe, said to have been the model for the "We Can Do It!" image commonly associated with Rosie, died in 1997. And Geraldine Doyle, who has also claimed to have been the inspiration for the We Can Do It! image, via a UPI photo taken of her at work in a factory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1942, died in 2010.
So who, actually, was the original Rosie? And why do so many different women claim her as their own?
The answer is in part, certainly, that Rosie belongs to all of us—and that we are all, on some level, Rosie. The images of female strength and empowerment that the images of a well-muscled female arm represent were meant at the time, and continue, to transcend the individual. They are propaganda, and as such convey their cause in the guise of a person. As an image, Rosie, in various forms, has been a first-class postage stamp. And a magazine cover model many times over. She has been displayed at the National Museum of American History. She has been refigured as tattoos. She has been used on posters supporting the election of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, and supporting the influence of Michelle Obama. She has been used for marketing purposes more broadly (Clorox has used her to advertise its cleaning products). She has been made into a bobble-head doll and an action figure. She has been recreated out of jelly beans. She has been slapped onto so many different pieces of merchandise—coffee mugs, t-shirts, magnets, stationery—that the Washington Post once dubbed her the "most over-exposed" souvenir item available in the nation's capital.
So, in part, the mysterious origins of Rosie come from that fact that everyone, in some ways, lays claim to her. (It's fitting, in that sense, that before Rosie was an image, she was a song: "Rosie the Riveter," popular on the radio in 1943, is said to have been the basis for Rockwell's painting. Even before she had a face, she had a name.)