On Writing Rosie the Riveter

Excerpt from Speech, Book Launch Event, Nontraditional Employment for Women, March 30, 1995

Writing the true story of Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II was an intense experience for me: in part, I think because I was born in 1944 and grew up in the 1950s post-war America—a time of cultural amnesia about the role of women during World War II. A time when stories about women war workers in popular magazines were replaced with stories about women homemakers. A time when parades and statues honored men in military uniforms not women in overalls. A time when movies featured bloody battles not dangerous defense jobs. (And, yes, the jobs were dangerous: in 1944, the Office of War Information reported that since Pearl Harbor 37, 600 workers died in industrial accidents, 7,500 more than military dead; 4, 710, 000 temporarily or permanently disabled, sixty times the number of military wounded and missing.  I grew up during a time when I never heard the popular World War II song “Rosie the Riveter” with the line: “She’s making history working for victory.”

I started my research in the early 1990s.  I studied statistics, read old magazines and newspapers, viewed propaganda films, read oral histories,  studied posters aimed at recruiting women into a previous hostile workplaces, and talked with former women workers.

In unraveling the mystery of Rosie the Riveter here is what I uncovered: the catch-phrase Rosie the Riveter was not a real person or even based on a real person, but first entered the American culture through the song, “Rosie the Riveter,” which was written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb in 1942.  Recorded by The Four Vagabonds and released in February 1953, the upbeat song was heard on the radio, on records, and in coin-operated machines located in restaurants and bus and train stations that played three minute versions of songs called “soundies.”  I interviewed Janet Loeb, the widow of John Jacob Loeb. The title, she said, was not based on a real person. It was selected because of its alliteration.

As for the Norman Rockwell painting, “Rosie” that first appeared on the cover of Saturday Evening Post , May 1943:  Norman Rockwell titled his painting just  “Rosie.” I interviewed Mary Doyle, who was Rockwell’s model for that model. At the time, she was a nineteen- year-old telephone operator and neither she nor Rockwell knew any riveters.  Although initially Curtis Publishing Co., the publishers of Saturday Evening Post, sent out prepublications blow-ups of the cover with the title “Rosie the Riveter,” it quickly changed its mind because it was afraid of being sued for plagiarizing the newly released song title, “Rosie the Riveter.” According to a newspaper article that was published under the headline, “Painting of Rosie, a Riveter, Starts Tempest in Teapot,” a hundred thousand news dealers from coast-to-coast received urgent instructions from the Curtis Publishing Co to ditch the ‘blow-up’ and to sign a solemn statement certifying that they had done so.”

In response to a reporter’s question about what he thought about the “tempest,” Rockwell was quoted as saying, “It’s Miss Doyle, our telephone operator, who should sue me. She is really a beautiful girl, but since I wanted to portray a girl of husky propositions, I had to distort the picture. I made a mistake in detail that people will be calling me down for. The cover shows ‘Rosie’ with goggles and an isinglass protective shield. I don’t think riveters use both. It was silly of me.”

And, by the way, if you’re wondering about Rosie’s pose, Rockwell later explained that he modeled her after the Prophet Isaiah that Michelanglo painted on the Sistine Chapel.  Other interesting tidbits about “Rosie” include the facts that Mary Doyle, Rockwell’s model, really is tall—6 feet, in fact and really had red hair; Rockwell originally had her wear saddle shoes; and at the time of the painting the ham in her ham sandwich was 11 ration points per pound.  Also, in case you missed it, if you look at the right hand pocket of Rosie’s overalls you’ll see a gold trimmed white compact and lace-edged handkerchief.

As for the “We Can Do It” Poster, it was produced in late 1943 by graphic artist J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse Corporation.  I also interviewed Charles Ruch, who was head of publications at Westinghouse at the time and a friend of Miller’s. According to Ruch, Westinghouse didn’t even have any riveters at the East Pittsburg plant and the identification badge on the woman in the poster is clearly from East Pittsburgh.  That poster, Ruch told me, was produced to represent all women workers and to show that women were rolling up their sleeves and saying “We Can Do It.”

Of course, in keeping with the emphasis on traditional feminine appearance, Miller depicted the woman with a carefully crafted curl peaking out front her bandana, plucked eyebrows, mascara and eye liner, bright red lipstick, and her one visible fingernail is perfectly manicured. Only 1,000 posters were printed for distribution in Westinghouse plants.  But, a copy of the poster did end up in the National Archives and some time in the 1970s, it was selected to be printed for sale as a postcard and poster and with few exceptions is mislabled with the title “Rosie the Riveter.”

By the end of 1944, it was clear that the war was not going to go on much longer. On June 6, known as D-Day, allied troops had invaded France and were pushing the German troops back to Germany.  In the war against Japan, U.S. troops had capture island after island in 1943 and 1944. As 1945 began, the peak of industrial mobilization in America was over.  Slowly the number of jobs in defense industries declined.  Although more bloody fighting lay ahead, Japan and Germany were just months away from surrendering. Before 1945 ended, millions of men would return from the battlefield to the home front. And soon there would be enough male workers again. The propaganda would now be aimed at telling women war workers to return to their home.

Some women were ready to leave their jobs, “I was ready to go home. I was tired” said Charlcia Neuman, a wartime riveter.  Helen Struder, another riveter, said, “I was glad it was over. . . I’m going to stay home and be a housewife. My husband never wanted me to work in the first place.

But many women did mind losing their jobs.  In Highland Park, Michigan, 200 women who had been laid off a the Ford Plant conducted a protest. Marching in front of the plant, women carried signs that read “Stop Discrimination Because of Sex” “How Come No Work For women?” After  Ottilie Juliet Gattus, who had worked at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation for the duration of the war, was laid off, she wrote to President Roosevelt: “I happen to be a widow with a mother and son to support. . . I would like to know why, after serving a company in good faith for almost three and a half years, it is now impossible to obtain employment with them. I am a lathe hand and was classified as skilled labor, but simply because I happed to be a woman I am not wanted.”

Given that what kind of ending did I write for Rosie the Riveter? Here it is:

As they lived their lives after World War II, many women war workers did not talk about their experiences . . . .But women war workers never forgot the job experience that they had for the duration of World War II.  They never forgot the thrill of getting a chance to do a war job and doing it. They never forgot the satisfaction of earning good wages. They never forgot the excitement of being independent. They never forgot that once there was a time in America when women were told that they could do anything.

And they did.

2 Responses to On Writing Rosie the Riveter

  1. Your book is so amazing! We are doing our social studies topic on Rosie the Riveter. The project is called NHD. This book is helping us a lot. Your a great author!

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