In 1942, 20-year-old Naomi Parker was working in a machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, when a photographer snapped a shot of her on the job. In the photo, released through the Acme photo agency, she’s bent over an industrial machine, wearing a jumpsuit and sensible heels, with her hair tied back in a polka-dot bandana for safety.
On January 20, 2018, less than two years after finally getting recognition as the woman in the photograph—thought to be the inspiration for the World War II-era poster girl “Rosie the Riveter”—Naomi Parker Fraley died at the age of 96.
Fraley’s late-in-life fame came as the result of the dedicated efforts made by one scholar, James J. Kimble, to explore the history behind this American and feminist icon and to untangle the legends surrounding the famous poster. “There are so many incredible myths about it, very few of them based even remotely in fact,” Kimble says.
The poster in question was originally produced in 1943 by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and displayed in its factories to encourage more women to join the wartime labor force. Created by the artist J. Howard Miller, it featured a woman in a red-and-white polka-dot headscarf and blue shirt, flexing her bicep beneath the phrase “We Can Do It!”
Although it’s ubiquitous now, the poster was only displayed by Westinghouse for a period of two weeks in February 1943, and then replaced by another one in a series of at least 40 other promotional images, few of which included women. “The idea that we have now that she was famous and everywhere during the war—not even close to true,” says Kimble.
Kimble, an associate professor of communication at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, began studying the “We Can Do It” poster due to his interest in the propaganda that was used on the home front during World War II.
During the war, Miller’s poster was far less well known than the image of a female worker created by a much more famous artist: Norman Rockwell. Published on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943, Rockwell’s painting depicts a woman in a blue work jumpsuit with a rivet gun in her lap, a sandwich in her hand and a copy of “Mein Kampf” under her foot. The woman’s lunch box reads “Rosie,” which linked her with a popular song released that same year called “Rosie the Riveter,” by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb.
But in the 1980s, Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster resurfaced with a bang, and was widely reprinted on T-shirts, mugs, pins and many other products. Kimble believes this resurgence was due to a combination of factors, including Reagan-era budget cuts, which led the National Archives to license the image to sell souvenirs and raise money; the 40th anniversary of World War II; and the continuing push for women’s rights. Adopted as a feminist symbol of strength and an icon of American wartime resilience, the woman in the poster was retroactively identified as Rosie the Riveter, too, and quickly became the most widely recognizable “Rosie.”
For years, people believed that a Michigan woman named Geraldine Hoff Doyle was the model for the poster. Doyle, who had worked briefly as a metal presser in a factory in 1942, saw a photograph of a bandanna-clad woman working at an industrial lathe reprinted in a magazine in the 1980s, and identified the woman as her younger self; she later linked this photo to Miller’s famous poster. By the 1990s, media reports were identifying Doyle as the “real-life Rosie the Riveter,” a claim that was widely repeated for years, including in Doyle’s obituary in 2010.
But Kimble wasn’t so sure. “How do we know that?” he says of his initial reaction to reading that Doyle was the woman in the image that (supposedly) inspired Miller’s poster. “Everything else we think we know about that poster is dubious. How do we know about her?”
Though he already knew the artist had no descendants, and had left limited papers behind, with no clue of who his model might have been, Kimble began looking into the 1942 photograph. And after five years of searching, he found “the smoking gun,” as he calls it—a copy of the photograph with the original caption glued on the back. Dated March 1942 at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, it identified “Pretty Naomi Parker” as the woman at the lathe.
Here is the original caption, which speaks volumes about how women working in factories during the war were seen:
“Pretty Naomi Parker is as easy to look at as overtime pay on the week’s check. And she’s a good example of an old contention that glamor is what goes into the clothes, and not the clothes. Pre-war fashion frills are only a discord in war-time clothing for women. Naomi wears heavy shoes, black suit, and a turban to keep her hair out of harm’s way (we mean the machine, you dope).”
Meanwhile, in California, Naomi Parker Fraley had already stumbled on the truth herself. In 2011, at a reunion of female war workers, she saw the Acme photo of the woman at the lathe on display and recognized herself. Then she saw the caption, with Geraldine Hoff Doyle’s name and information. Fraley wrote to the National Park Service to correct the error, but got nowhere, even though she had kept a clipping of the photo from a 1942 paper with her name in the caption.
“Doyle’s tale was so believable by that point, and so widely accepted that even the original clipping couldn’t convince people otherwise,” Kimble says. “So when I called [Fraley], she was just delighted that someone was willing to listen to her side of the story.”
In 2016, Kimble published an article revealing his findings in the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs, called “Rosie’s Secret Identity.” At the time, the New York Times reported, Fraley gave an interview to the Omaha World-Herald in which she gave a simple yet memorable description of how it felt to finally be known to the world as the real-life Rosie: “Victory! Victory! Victory!”
People magazine also sent a crew to her rural California home, complete with makeup artist and lighting technician, and did a photo shoot of the then 95-year-old dressed like her presumed alter ego in Miller’s poster.
Doubt still remains, however, as to whether the photo of Naomi Parker—which was published in Miller’s hometown newspaper, The Pittsburgh Press, in July 1942—was in fact the inspiration for Miller’s image. Without confirmation from the artist, who died in 1985, there is only the physical resemblance between the woman in the photo and the woman in the poster—and, of course, the polka-dot bandana—to go by.
All that was beside the point for Naomi Parker Fraley, Kimble believes. “I think the most important thing to her was her identity. When there’s a photo of you going around that people recognize, and yet somebody else’s name is below it, and you’re powerless to change that—that’s really going to affect you.”
When he interviewed her, he says, “there was an anguish that she felt. A powerlessness. The idea that this journal article, and the media picking it up and spreading the story, helped her regain her claim on that photo and her personal identity was really the big victory for her.”