The Many Faces of Rosie the Riveter

Why there are so many women who claim to have been the inspiration for the iconic "We Can Do It!" poster

National Archives
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.

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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.)
The other reason so many different people call themselves "Rosie," though, has to do with more basic realities—of labor, of communication, of intellectual property. There are two iconic images of Rosie the Riveter. One of them is, indeed, Rockwell's—created in 1943, printed on the cover of a popular national magazine, and based on the modeling Mary Doyle Keefe provided for the sum of $10. This is the one that actually features a factory-working woman named Rosie.
Normal Rockwell's "Rosie the Riveter" painting, published in May of 1943 (The Saturday Evening Post)
The other image is the "We Can Do It" poster. Which initially had little to do with Rosie—and, for that matter, with women at all.
This poster, the one most of us today associate with Rosie the Riveter, was created not so much to encourage women in the workforce as to encourage productivity in general. World War II coincided with the rise of labor unions in the 1930s; across the country, as factory production became war production, managers sought to build morale and minimize the frictions of the past. They did that, in part, by way of posters they displayed on factory floors, many of them bearing team-building slogans like "Keep 'Em Firing!" and "Together We Can Do It!." For optimum morale-building, the posters were rotated into and out of use.
In the early 1940s, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation commissioned the graphic artist J. Howard Miller to create a series of these inspirational posters for the company. One of these was of a woman, defiant but proud, with her work-shirt's sleeves rolled up. (There are conflicting accounts about the woman on whom Miller based his rendering: Some say it was Rose Will Monroe, who was working as a riveter at Michigan’s Willow Run Bomber Plant when she was asked to star in a video series promoting war bonds; others say it was Geraldine Doyle and the UPI photo of her at work.)
On February 15, 1943, a Westinghouse factory in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania displayed a new poster—which was small, just 17 inches wide and 22 inches high, and one of only 1,800 or so printed for the purpose. Its caption read, "We Can Do It!"
Though it depicted a woman, feminism was likely not the poster's intended message; it was concerned much more with the outcome of labor than with the laborers themselves. Two weeks later, the poster was removed from the factory floor. And it was, for the most part, forgotten.
Then, in 1982, the Washington Post Magazine ran an article about propaganda posters stored in the collection of the National Archives. One of the posters it printed in its story was the "We Can Do It!" image. From there—and during a time when it would have more valence with ideas of feminism that had become widespread in the culture—the image enjoyed a renaissance, to the extent that, today, you can "Rosiefy yourself." You can buy a "Rosie the Riveter" bandana. You can make a cocktail called "Rosé the Riveter." The now-iconic image—initially nameless, initially standing for no cause beyond work—has, through the typical avenues of cultural adoption and appropriation, taken on the mantle of progress and strength and feminism. It has taken on the name of "Rosie."
As for the other Rosie, the one painted by Rockwell and actually intended to be the face of the female war effort? Rockwell copyrighted that image, as he did with other works; after his death, his family protected that copyright. Which meant that, by law, the painting could not be modified or appropriated. So, while it gained in financial value—in 2002, it sold for nearly $5 million—it lost in cultural. The woman who announces, both to herself and to the world, that We Can Do It! may not have started life as "Rosie the Riveter," although she has, in fact, effectively become inseparable from the name.