Rosie the Riveter was the star of a campaign aimed at recruiting female workers for defense industries during World War II, and she became perhaps the most iconic image of working women. American women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers during the war, as widespread male enlistment left gaping holes in the industrial labor force. Between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent, and by 1945 nearly one out of every four married women worked outside the home.
Rosies in the Workforce
While women during World War II worked in a variety of positions previously closed to them, the aviation industry saw the greatest increase in female workers.
More than 310,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry in 1943, making up 65 percent of the industry’s total workforce (compared to just 1 percent in the pre-war years). The munitions industry also heavily recruited women workers, as illustrated by the U.S. government’s Rosie the Riveter propaganda campaign.
Based in small part on a real-life munitions worker, but primarily a fictitious character, the strong, bandanna-clad Rosie became one of the most successful recruitment tools in American history, and the most iconic image of working women in the World War II era.
In movies, newspapers, propaganda posters, photographs and articles, the Rosie the Riveter campaign stressed the patriotic need for women to enter the workforce. On May 29, 1943, The Saturday Evening Post published a cover image by the artist Norman Rockwell, portraying Rosie with a flag in the background and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s racist tract “Mein Kampf” under her feet.
Though Rockwell’s image may be a commonly known version of Rosie the Riveter, her prototype was actually created in 1942 by a Pittsburgh artist named J. Howard Miller, and was featured on a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation under the headline “We Can Do It!”
Early in 1943, a popular song debuted called “Rosie the Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, and the name went down in history.
Who Was Rosie the Riveter?
The true identity of Rosie the Riveter has been the subject of considerable debate. For years, the inspiration for the woman in the Westinghouse poster was believed to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Michigan, who worked in a Navy machine shop during World War II.
Other sources claim that Rosie was actually Rose Will Monroe, who worked as a riveter at the Willow Run Bomber Plant near Detroit. Monroe also was featured in a promotional film for war bonds.
And Rosalind P. Walter from Long Island, New York, is known to be the Rosie from the popular song by Evans and Loeb. Walter was, in fact, a riveter on Corsair fighter planes.
But the most credible claim on Rosie’s legacy came from Naomi Parker Fraley, who was photographed working in the machine shop at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. In the 1942 photo, she is sporting a telltale polka-dotted bandana. Fraley passed away in January 2018.
In addition to factory work and other home front jobs, some 350,000 women joined the Armed Services, serving at home and abroad. At the urging of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and women’s groups, and impressed by the British use of women in service, General George C. Marshall supported the idea of introducing a women’s service branch into the Army.
In May 1942, Congress instituted the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, later upgraded to the Women’s Army Corps, which had full military status. Its members, known as WACs, worked in more than 200 non-combatant jobs stateside and in every theater of the war.
By 1945, there were more than 100,000 WACs and 6,000 female officers. In the Navy, members of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) held the same status as naval reservists and provided support stateside. The Coast Guard and Marine Corps soon followed suit, though in smaller numbers.
One of the lesser-known roles women played in the war effort was provided by the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs. These women, each of whom had already obtained their pilot’s license prior to service, became the first women to fly American military aircraft.
They ferried planes from factories to bases, transporting cargo and participating in simulation strafing and target missions, accumulating more than 60 million miles in flight distances and freeing thousands of male U.S. pilots for active duty in World War II.
More than 1,000 WASPs served, and 38 of them lost their lives during the war. Considered civil service employees and without official military status, these fallen WASPs were granted no military honors or benefits, and it wasn’t until 1977 that the WASPs received full military status.
Impact of Rosie the Riveter
The call for women to join the workforce during World War II was meant to be temporary and women were expected to leave their jobs after the war ended and men came home. The women who did stay in the workforce continued to be paid less than their male peers and were usually demoted. But after their selfless efforts during World War II, men could no longer claim superiority over women. Women had enjoyed and even thrived on a taste of financial and personal freedom—and many wanted more. The impact of World War II on women changed the workplace forever, and women’s roles continued to expand in the postwar era.