Rosie the Riveter's Riveting Story
Updated: Apr 20, 2022
WARNING: Reading this may inspire you!
Monday morning at 9:30, she turned on the radio just as President Franklin Roosevelt began speaking to Congress and the nation:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked …. ~FDR December 8, 1941
But this wasn’t the first time that the radio provided news of Pearl Harbor. Thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt’s Over Our Coffee Cups, the weekly Sunday evening radio broadcast that began just two months before, Rosie already knew about Pearl Harbor. When Mrs. Roosevelt spoke of the times to come, Rosie, her parents, and seven siblings listened carefully:
“Whatever is asked of us, I am sure that we can accomplish it.” Eleanor Roosevelt, December 7, 1941
Rosie the Riveter Goes to Work
Eleanor Roosevelt’s words echoed in Rosie’s mind for weeks. With her brothers already talking about joining the army, Rosie, age 20, and her 18-year-old sister, Ada, began talking about joining the work force at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California. But they did more than talk. They went to work there.
Soon Rosie and Ada were joined in war work by more than 18 million women in every state of the nation and every imaginable occupation. Collectively, they built planes and ships, flew bombers, produced munitions, grew crops, drove ambulances, became bus drivers, joined the Army (Women’s Army Corps), the Navy (W.A.V.E.S.), the Air Force (W.A.S.P.) and filled tens of thousands of essential wartime jobs, upending traditional views of Women’s Work.
These women worked as hard, sometimes even harder, as the men had done who had previously held these positions.
Absolutely. Here’s just one example. The Department of Labor determined that in the aircraft manufacturing industry, a typical man drilled 650 holes per day during the war. A woman? A typical woman drilled 1,000 holes.
It was the strength, courage, and empowerment of these women who helped America and her Allies win WW2. Many say that without all these Rosies, the war would have been lost.
So what happened next?
When WW2 ended in 1945, American industry thanked Rosie and sent her home. The jobs she had filled were now needed for returning soldiers.
But that’s not the end of Rosie or her story
Let’s go back to early in WW2, when the now iconic “We Can Do It!” poster was drawn by artist J. Howard Miller. Copies were displayed for two weeks only—from February 15-28, 1943—in Westinghouse Electric Service helmet-liner factories. By March, another poster occupied the same space on the walls.
Miller’s drawing—today often called the Rosie the Riveter poster—had nothing to do with a Rosie or a riveter. How did we get this name and occupation?
Thank you Evans and Loeb
Lyricist Redd Evans and composer John Jacob Loeb wrote a song they called “Rosie the Riveter” that became wildly popular in 1943. Below are the words to the song and the cover of the sheet music.
ROSIE THE RIVETER
“All the day long whether rain or shine She’s a part of the assembly line She’s making history, working for victory Rosie the Riveter Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage Sitting up there on the fuselage That little frail can do more than a male will do Rosie the Riveter”
~Music and lyrics by Evans and Lowe
But just as Miller’s poster was soon off the wall, the Evans/Loeb song eventually wained in popularity.
Norman Rockwell to the Rescue
Not long after J. Howard Miller’s poster, and the Evans/Loeb song became known, Norman Rockwell—the famous illustrator of Saturday Evening Post (SEP) magazine covers— asked his neighbor, Mary Doyle (Later Mary Doyle Keefe), if she would be a model for his upcoming SEP cover. She agreed. He had used many of the town residents for his covers so she was not surprised.
Rockwell’s cover showed a muscular woman, holding a sandwich, balancing a rivet gun on her lap, and sitting next to a lunch pail with the name “Rosie” on it.
It was Michelangelo’s Isaiah as painted on the Sister Chapel. Meanwhile, Rockwell’s cover, published May 29, 1943, was seen by more than 3 million people. But even that Rosie faded away. (It’s reported that Norman Rockwell later apologized to Mary, saying he was sorry to draw her so large.)
Feminism brings back Rosie
Fast forward to the rise of feminism in the 1970s when the “We Can Do It!” poster resurfaced. The Rockwell illustration might have been used by feminists for inspiration, but it was copyrighted, while Miller’s art was in the public domain. Now eight decades later, the Miller image stands for strong, empowered, courageous women.
Who was the inspiration for the Name “Rosie the Riveter” and the Iconic “We Can Do It!” Poster?
Every image and sound of Rosie is evocative. We feel we could see her, draw her, sing along with her, assuming we had the talent. But where did the legend of Rosie begin? After reading many sources, some of them contradictory, this is the (or perhaps I should say ‘a likely’) story I’ve pieced together. The story brings together the name Rosie the Riveter as well as who was the woman who inspired J. Howard Miller to draw the “We Can Do It!” poster.
Was it Rosalind Palmer?
Writing under his pen name of Cholly Knickerbocker, Igor Cassini begins our tale. Igor was William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper’s #1 “I-know-it-all-&-tell-it-all” society journalist. In 1942, he interviewed the socialite Rosalind Palmer. She made for good reading. She was the 19-year-old daughter of Winthrop Bushnell Palmer, a well-known professor, poet and writer, and Carleton Humphreys Palmer, president of E.R. Squibb and Sons, the drug company that helped mass produce the early doses of penicillin distributed to the troops during World War II.
<<<Note: If the name Cassini has a familiar ring, it’s probably because his older brother, Oleg, became the well-known designer of Jackie Kennedy’s and other prominent women’s clothes. The two brothers were co-directors of the Cassini Fashion House with Igor specializing in public relations while his brother Oleg was the fashion director. Of course, Igor had his own brushes with fame. His first wife, Austine McDonnell (known as Bootsie) divorced him in order to become the third wife of William Randolph Hearst, Jr., his boss.>>>
Rosalind Palmer’s story made for interesting reading on the society pages. She chose to forego a college education at Smith or Vassar in order to contribute to the WW2 war effort—as a riveter. She worked a night shift riveting the bodies of Corsair fighter jets -- and became one of the fastest riveters as well as staunchest proponent of better salaries for women.
<<<By the way, Rosalind Palmer Walter, who died in March 2020 at the age of 95, eventually became the single largest individual donor to PBS. Since WW2 prevented her from getting a college education, she found that PBS documentaries often helped inform her and wanted the public to have the same experience.>>>
Although her name was Rosalind, and she was called Roz, there is widespread acceptance that the song Rosie the Riveter was inspired by Cassini’s article that came to the attention of Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb who, as mentioned above, wrote Rosie the Riveter in 1943.
The names Rosie the Riveter and Rosalind Palmer were further linked in a July 17, 1943 article published by King Features Syndicate. Alice Hughes, one of their popular syndicated writers interviewed Rosalind and wrote: “Probably the most popular pet name around the country for a woman factory worker is ‘Rosie the Riveter.’” Hughes then went on to attribute the name to Rosalind Palmer.
Was It Mary Doyle Keefe?
Although Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover of May 29, 1943 showed Mary Doyle Keefe next to a lunchpail that showed the name Rosie, we know the “We Can Do It!” poster was already drawn and the song Rosie the Riveter was already written. So Mary Doyle Keefe is not the source of either.
Was It Geraldine Hoff Doyle?
For a long time, the woman shown in the poster was thought to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle (not related to Mary Doyle). She had been a Michigan factory worker and eventually told historian and author Penny Colman that she believed she was the woman in the newspaper photo—thought to have influenced J. Howard Miller. Many people accepted her claim. But eventually another name surfaced.
Was It the Woman We Introduced at the Beginning?
Was it the Rosie who worked at the Naval Air Station that we described in our opening paragraphs?
Probably, but her name wasn’t Rosie. It was Naomi Parker, who did go to work with her 18-year-old sister Ada.
A photographer took Naomi’s picture while she stood at a lathe, wearing her polkadot bandana. The photo was published in 1942 in many newspapers including the Pittsburg Press, Miller’s hometown paper. The conjecture is that Miller was inspired by that image of Naomi and her polkadot bandana.
Does the WHO Matter?
Today the poster stands for YOU—for every strong, empowered, courageous woman. It shows that we have (done it), we are (doing it), and we will (continue to do it). So we offer our thanks to whoever influenced J. Howard Miller. We’re grateful for such a powerful image to inspire us.
INSPIRATION FROM ROSIE THE RIVETER
Be inspired, as are millions of women, by Rosie and her “We Can Do It!” words. Make them your “I Can Do It!” Motto.
No matter where you are in your life or what you are doing, let “We Can Do It!” Or “I Can Do It!” guide your efforts and inspire you to be the person you aspire to be.
RosieCentral’s Definition: Rosie the Riveter
A touchstone for every woman who steps out of her comfort zone to accomplish more than even she thought possible.
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