Wellesley Professors Reflect on the Message of Rosie the Riveter

February 1, 2018
The original Rosie the Riveter and modern day takes on the iconic pose.

The pose is iconic: A young woman in a blue work shirt with her hair protected by a red polka-dot bandana flexes her bicep in a show of strength and determination.

Rosie the Riveter came along in 1943, at a time when the United States needed factory workers to make weapons and ammunition to sustain the war effort. With so many men fighting, women were encouraged to roll up their sleeves, put on work clothes, and report to work, said Marion R. Just, professor of political science at Wellesley.

Naomi Parker Fraley, who unwittingly inspired the image of Rosie, died on January 20 at age 96. A photograph of a bandana-clad Fraley working a lathe at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., in 1942, was published in magazines and newspapers, and it inspired artist J. Howard Miller’s now-legendary poster for the Westinghouse Electric Corp., which used it to boost worker morale. (Another woman was previously thought to have been in the original photo; Fraley’s identity was not confirmed until a dogged Seton Hall professor of history tracked her down in 2015.) 

As a concept, Rosie the Riveter “represents the many American women who, during World War II, enacted their patriotism by entering the workforce to answer the appeal from Franklin D. Roosevelt that Americans work to arm ‘the arsenal of democracy,’” said Brenna W. Greer, Knafel Assistant Professor of Social Sciences and assistant professor of history.

Greer said the image “projects Rosie as physically strong and determined while appropriately feminine—denoted by lipstick, long lashes, plucked brows, and polished nails."

One effect of the poster “was to overcome the cultural norm that women did not work outside the home and were little flowers that needed protecting,” said Just. “Rosie’s hair was tied up in a scarf rather than coiffed. She is clearly ready for work.” Just added that Rosie’s influence resonated white middle-class women and also with women of color who "now had an economic alternative to being low-paid domestics working as maids and nannies.”

Rosanna Hertz, the Class of 1919 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women’s and Gender Studies, said Rosie the Riveter is relevant today as a symbol. She brings up Rosie in her current seminar Women Leaders at Work. “Rosie remains a symbol, and a role model, that women can do the same work as men and that they are equally strong not only in brain but also in their abilities to get the job done,” she said.