Rosie the Riveter

views updated May 23 2018


With some 16.3 million men in the military, employment opportunities for women expanded at unparalleled rates during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became the

national symbol of the millions of women who took on new and challenging jobs created by the nation's expanded wartime economy. Songwriters Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb first popularized the term in a 1942 song that heralded the contributions of a dedicated riveter named Rosie. Newspapers and magazines regularly published stories about strong, powerful women in overalls and hardhats performing "men's jobs" in behalf of the war effort. This image was reinforced early in 1943 when a recruitment poster, commissioned by the U.S. War Production Commission, featured a resolute female worker, with upraised muscular arm, that included the caption, "We Can Do It!" The May 29, 1943, issue of the Saturday Evening Post drew further attention to wartime working women when it published on its cover an extraordinary painting by Norman Rockwell that depicted an imposing and self-assured riveter, clad in overalls with her shirtsleeves rolled up to reveal commanding, muscular arms. Rosie the Riveter has now become a generic term used to describe all women workers in the United States during World War II.

In sharp contrast to the Depression years of the 1930s, when working women were often harshly criticized for taking jobs away from men, the woman worker of World War II was highly lauded. Responding to the unprecedented demand for war workers, the number of employed women grew by 6.5 million. The proportion of women in the work force rose from 25 percent at the beginning of the war to 36 percent at war's end; an increase greater than the previous four decades combined. Just as important, growing numbers of married and older women joined the work force. More than 3 million of the new female war workers were married. Married women over the age of thirty-five were far more likely to seek employment than younger mothers with children. Public disapproval of working mothers, coupled with woefully inadequate childcare programs, discouraged young mothers from working. In contrast to earlier eras, when the typical female worker was young and single, women workers during World War II were much more likely to be older and married. This changing profile continued into the postwar era.

The largest gain in female employment occurred in manufacturing, with more than 3 million women employed in defense industries. While defense work paid better than most other jobs available to women, such as service and office work, the wages of female industrial workers equaled only 60 percent of what men received. This discrepancy reflected the fact that women were concentrated in lower-paying, less skilled positions; rarely did they qualify for skilled work.

New opportunities in manufacturing enabled African-American women to leave low-paying domestic work for better paying factory jobs. In fact, the number of black women employed as domestics declined by 15 percent while their participation in factory work more than doubled. Yet black industrial women were usually relegated to the lowest-paying jobs, such as janitors and sweepers, and they suffered even more discrimination than their white counterparts. Still, even these factory jobs were preferable to domestic work.

At the conclusion of the war, as the nation shifted its production from a wartime to a peacetime economy, female industrial workers were laid off from their jobs at nearly double the rates of men. By 1947, the percentage of women in the work force had declined to 27 percent. While the labor participatimon rate of women began to climb in the years after 1947, women discovered that jobs in heavy industry were now cut off to them. Instead, they were forced to accept less-prestigious, lower-paying jobs in areas such as retail trade and service. Moreover, the decade of the 1950s witnessed a renewed interest in motherhood and traditional family life that resulted in wage-earning women placing family needs above work.

Historians continue to debate the impact of World War II on the lives of working women. For some, the Second World War represented a major turning point for women as they eagerly supported the war effort by engaging in new and challenging jobs that had previously been denied them. Other historians have emphasized that the changes wrought by World War II were only temporary, pointing out that immediately after the war women were expected to return to their traditional roles as wives and mothers. A third group of historians has emphasized how the long-range significance of the changes brought about by the war provided the foundation for the rejuvenation of the contemporary women's movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the daughters of the wartime generation demanded greater equality for women in the workplace and in society at large.


Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Gluck, Sherna. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War and Social Change. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Litoff, Judy Barrett, and David C. Smith. Since You Went Away: World War II letters from American Women on the Home Front. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991

Internet Resources

"Rosie the Riveter Trust." Available from <>

Judy Barrett Litoff

See also:Feminism; Propaganda, War; Sexual Behavior; Women, Employment of; Women, World War I; Women, World War II.

Rosie the Riveter

views updated Jun 27 2018

Rosie the Riveter

Rosie the Riveter was created as a tool of U.S. propaganda to recruit women into the workplace during World War II (1941–1945) as men were mobilized for the war. Although riveting is used in aircraft production, the name was used to label all female factory workers in defense industries during the war. Though Rosie was a fictional character, she became associated with several real women. The popular 1942 song of that name written by John Jacob Loeb and Redd Evans and recorded by Kay Kyser supposedly was based on Rosalind P. Walter. Norman Rockwell's rendition of Rosie on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943, was modeled after the postal worker Mary Doyle. Most famously, Rose Munroe, a widow and the mother of two, was recruited from her riveting job at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Michigan to encourage the purchase of war bonds in filmed ads.

The poster image now associated with Rosie the Riveter, featuring a woman in factory uniform flexing her bicep and asserting, "We Can Do It!" was created by J. Howard Miller in 1942 for the Westinghouse War Production Coordinating Committee and was based on a photograph taken of the Michigan factory worker Geraldine Doyle. The woman in the poster came to be known as Rosie the Riveter and remains emblematic of the women who worked in the defense industry during the war. Rosie wears mascara, lipstick, and nail polish and remains a "woman" even as she performs masculine work. The continued power and appeal of the poster lie in its combined depiction of traditional understandings of feminine beauty with strength and competency rather than weakness and assertiveness rather than submissiveness. Despite Rosie's radically progressive appearance, the poster adheres to tradition. The assertion "We Can Do It!" is reminiscent of the cheer "You Can Do It!" and the traditional cheerleading role of women during wartime, encouraging men to fight and be "men." The "We" refers not just to women who can do men's work but to men and women who can win the war together. The propaganda work of Rosie the Riveter was directed toward society as a whole, and in the context of war women's work in nontraditional spheres was encouraged and applauded.

Around eighteen million Rosies, six million of whom were first-time workers, filled positions left vacant by men mobilized for war and positions newly created in the defense industry after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The U.S. economy and military depended on the labor Rosies provided. Women worked in factories for a variety of reasons, but patriotism was the most frequently highlighted motivation in popular depictions of working women. In fact, the positions generally paid better, required training, and were more interesting and challenging than the work previously and subsequently available to women. The wartime economy offered unprecedented opportunities to African-American women in particular.

The wartime positions and wages Rosies enjoyed ended when men returned from war. Birth rates rose dramatically immediately after the war, and many middle-class women willingly became full-time homemakers. However, many working-class women lost their positions and were forced to search for less lucrative work. Many historians claim that in this sense the progress made by Rosies during the war was an anomaly. However, scholars who have recorded the oral histories of Rosies have discovered that even though the progress was temporary, many women left their wartime jobs with greater self-confidence, pride, and self-worth. For the first time in such large numbers, women proved to themselves and to American society that they were capable of doing "men's" work. In addition, Rosie the Riveter's period of success supplied inspiration to the later women's movement. As a strong, self-sufficient working woman appreciated and celebrated as a national heroine for her contributions to society, Rosie the Riveter's image and claim that "We Can Do It!" persevered as a useful and inspiring image for the women's movement.


Gluck, Sherna Berger. 1987. Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women, the War, and Social Change. Boston: Twayne.

Honey, Maureen. 1984. Creating Rosie the Riveter: Class, Gender, and Propaganda during World War II. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Rosie the Riveter: World War II/Home Front National Historical Park. 2006. Available from

                                              Susan L. Solomon

Rosie the Riveter

views updated May 11 2018


"Rosie the Riveter" was the title of a song written in 1942, during World War II (19391945). The song quickly became a popular hit, and more importantly became the catch phrase that represented all women working in war-related industries.

The image of a woman war worker first appeared on the cover of the then-popular weekly magazine, Saturday Evening Post, on May 25, 1943. It was a painting by renowned artist Norman Rockwell of a woman worker; a muscular body, a cute saucy face, and very determined. She had a rivet gun, used for industrial assembly, resting across her lap, and the name "Rosie" painted on her lunchbox.

"Rosie the Riveter" became the major symbol of the more than six million women who joined the workforce during World War II. The women worked in naval shipyards, lumber mills, steel mills, and foundries. They worked as welders, mechanics, electricians, and boilermakers. They operated buses, cranes, tractors, and worked as engineers, police officers, taxicab drivers, and members of federal government services.

When the war ended in 1945, so did the extraordinary job opportunities for women. "Rosie the Riveter" disappeared as quickly as she had been created. "Rosie" represented the superb skill, ability, and patriotism of all U.S. women working on behalf of the domestic, industrial efforts on the "home front" during World War II.

See also: Women in the Workplace, World War II

Rosie the Riveter

views updated May 17 2018

Rosie the Riveter

During World War II (1939–45), Rosie the Riveter was a popular image that represented the women who served their country by taking on the dirty and difficult jobs left vacant by men. Until the war, women were generally unwelcome in American workplaces. But with so many men drafted to serve in the armed forces, women's labor became necessary. Jobs that had once been acceptable only for men were now open to women.

Rosie helped America win the war by building bombers, tanks, and ships. She worked in shipyards, lumber mills, steel mills, and foundries. She operated buses, cranes, and tractors. She helped the police officers, taxicab drivers, and government workers by taking over their duties when they left to fight the war.

The image of Rosie the Riveter appeared in several ways during the 1940s. The first was a promotional film and poster series sponsored by the government. A song written in 1942 made the name popular. Perhaps the most well-known visual images are two paintings. The first, by J. Howard Miller, shows a woman with her sleeves rolled up, flexing her biceps, with the words “We can do it!” The second, a portrait by Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) that appeared on the cover of the May 25, 1943, issue of the Saturday Evening Post, shows a female worker with a rivet gun, used in assembly operations.

Over six million women followed the example of Rosie the Riveter during the war. The extraordinary opportunities to work, however, disappeared as suddenly as they had appeared. When the war ended and the servicemen returned home from duty, women were dismissed from their positions so men could be hired. Rosie the Riveter represented the patriotic efforts of women on the American home front. Without a war, there was no longer a need for her.

Rosie the Riveter

views updated May 23 2018

Rosie the Riveter. See Gender and War.