The Complex Legacy of Rosie the Riveter


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This past weekend, a memorial service was held for Geraldine Doyle, the woman who was the unwitting model for the "We Can Do It!" poster that became an iconic image of not only female factory workers in World War II, but also the broader women's movement of the 1970s and 80s. Doyle died just before New Year's, at the age of 86.

In 1942, a news photographer snapped an image of Doyle, then 17 years old, as she worked at a metal-stamping machine in a factory in Ann Arbor, Michigan. An artist used that image (adding a greatly beefed-up arm and a clenched fist that were not part of the original photograph) to create the "We Can Do It!" poster for a War Production Coordinating Committee propaganda campaign to combat absenteeism.

Ironically, Doyle said she wasn't even aware of the poster's existence until the early 1980s, when she saw it in a magazine ad and recognized herself in it. Even more ironically, Doyle herself only worked as a "Rosie the Riveter" for two weeks during the war. She quit because she was an avid cellist, and she feared she would injure her hands in a machine accident (she apparently discovered that the woman she was replacing had mangled her hand in the stamping machine).   

But perhaps it's fitting that the story behind the poster is more complex than its surface image. Because the legacy of that "Rosie the Riveter" campaign and time has been a complex mix, as well. 

For starters, it's worth noting how much has changed in terms of government propaganda. The poster with Doyle's image was part of a much wider government-funded campaign to influence how American men and women saw women's roles. At the beginning of the war, the goal was getting more women into critical war-related jobs. At the end of the war, the goal was to get the women to give up those jobs and drop out of the work force so there would be more jobs for the men returning from the front. That's an amazing bit of social manipulation--especially that last part. And it impacted more than just the middle-class women who had a choice about working. 

Despite the impression left by the propaganda campaign, only six million of the 18 million women who worked in war jobs from 1942-1945 were new to the work force. Half the women who worked in those jobs were already working in lower-paid positions before the war. Others were rejoining the work force after being laid off during the depression, having been told, in many cases, that the men needed the jobs more than they did, even if they were single mothers. For those women, the war offered them an opportunity, for the first time, to support their family with a decent working wage. 

So for many of those 18 million women who got a taste of self-sufficiency, purpose, and economic stability during the war years, all that rosy "Rosie the Riveter" propaganda material must have a bitter edge to it, when viewed in retrospect. Because as soon as it didn't suit their purposes anymore, the same people who told women they could do it ... told them they couldn't do it anymore. And those same managers, politicians and editors who thought the women's dreams and stories of independence were great when the goal was encouraging women to work, rejected them out of hand in the post-war years. Imagine how used some of those women must have felt. Used, betrayed, and lied to.

Much has changed, of course. Madison Avenue and Hollywood still have tremendous influence on what young people think they should wear,what they should do, or how they should act. But it's hard to imagine the government instigating a campaign to tell women to have babies or cook their husbands fancy dinners, even if it would help the unemployment situation. Heads would roll. It's also hard to imagine the magazine, television and newspaper industries joining in such close lockstep with government propaganda committees to accomplish that goal. Unless, of course, conveying the government's message coincidentally led to a huge spike in audience or sales.  

And yet, almost seven decades later, all is not sunshine and roses. Just this past week, for example, we had a Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia arguing that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment does not apply to women. Clearly, we still have a distance to go, in terms of protecting and respecting women's equality and access to economic opportunity.  

The legacy of Rosie the Riveter is also mixed when it comes to the job choices women make, despite the far greater range of options we now have. The "We Can Do It" poster portrays women eager to take on jobs involving manual labor and/or heavy machinery. And during the war, women did, indeed, fly airplanes, operate factory equipment, and perform many physical and traditionally "male" jobs. But even with all the advances made by women in the workforce, the number of women doing the kind of work Rosie the Riveter represented remains quite small.

Women make up significant percentages of many white-collar fields that were male-dominated half a century ago, from advertising and middle-management to medicine and law. But the percentage of women welders, for example--just like the percentage of women pilots--hasn't climbed above 6%. Just this past December, the Cunard line hired its first female cruise ship captain in the company's 170-year history The percentage of women electricians, steamfitters and pipefitters hovers around the 1% mark. And the percentage of women actually working as riveters (or sheet metal workers) is still less than 5%. 

What accounts for those numbers? Are those fields still hostile to women? Do young women not have enough role models to imagine themselves in those kinds of positions? Or are those jobs somehow inherently less appealing to women? 

I can't speak to sheet metal workers or welders, but I've puzzled over the low number of women pilots for years without coming up with a good answer. I suspect it's a combination of factors. But Geraldine Doyle's actual story is probably more iconic than the simple, "We Can Do It!" poster image. Doyle evidently had ambitions, a "can do" spirit and, like many women, was pulled in more than one direction. But in the end, even though she had the chance to do a man's factory job, she chose something else, instead. Which, according to Bureau of Labor statistics, makes her very much like most women today.

At the time, the poster bearing Doyle's face and the determined cry of "We Can Do It!" was trying to convince the world that women could, in fact, do physical and traditionally male jobs. Seventy years later, it's not so much a question of whether women CAN do a man's job. It's a far more complex question of why--particularly in the fields the "Rosie the Riveter" campaign was designed to promote--more women don't.