Who was Rosie the Riveter?

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Gibson: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Gibson, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Gibson: Jane, what's your favorite icon?

Jane McGrath: Maybe Mr. Clean.

Candace Gibson: Oh, that's a good choice. I'm partial to McGruff.

Jane McGrath: Really?

Candace Gibson: And I also like the Snuggle Bear from Downy.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I think so.

Candace Gibson: Advertisers have a way of hooking us and drawing us to their products. And even if we don't go out and buy the products, we still have an allegiance to them because they have this cute, quirky, or tough character that we associate with it.

Jane McGrath: That's true. And we're convinced by the way they look, the visual representation of it is very convincing.

Candace Gibson: And that's the power of propaganda, really. And propaganda, depending on how you look at it can be a good or bad thing. Essentially when propaganda convinces a bunch of people to act in a way that benefits a nation or an organization, it has a pretty positive effect. But when propaganda convinces people to act out negatively or to act in ways that don't benefit mankind, that's when we say its bad propaganda.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And one of the most famous instances of bad propaganda would be during the Nazi regime in Germany. They had this whole machine that produced propaganda to sway people over to the Nazi side.

Candace Gibson: And various forms of propaganda, not just posters - but film and music, and even just efforts. I think they made radios readily available to that people could hear broadcasts from Hitler. And as far as the Americans go during World War II, if you ask anyone what the most famous propaganda icon is from that era, I bet you dollars to doughnuts that most people will say -

Jane McGrath: Rosie the Riveter.

Candace Gibson: - Rosie the Riveter. And ironically enough, the image of Rosie the Riveter was produced during World War II, but it wasn't popularized until the 1980s. And I think that's where people really get the story of Rosie wrong.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, that's right. And the name Rosie was known during the war, and it was associated with women taking up the man's role in the workplace. But it didn't actually have the picture that we associate with it today, which was the We Can Do it lady with the polka dotted scarf on her head and defiant look in her eyes. Rosie was known more so - one, by a song. A song was written about Rosie. And that was pretty popular in '42. Then by '43, the famous Norman Rockwell had drawn his version of Rosie. And that was the picture that was actually very famous during the war in America.

Candace Gibson: Yeah, and as famous as Rockwell is, and his images in the Saturday Evening Post, when I saw this image of Rosie the Riveter, I had never seen it before. And it kind of took me aback because I'm used to the iconic one with the yellow background and the very John D. headscarf and eyeliner and very long eyelashes - very feminine Rosie. And we'll get to her in a second. But Rockwell's Rosie is really tough looking.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, it's very different to look at the two next to each other. Because Rockwell's Rosie is relaxed! She's taking a break from her work. She has her tools on her. She has goggles and everything, and she's just eating her lunch on her break. She's like, "Yeah, whatever."

Candace Gibson: And we know its Rosie because on her lunch pail it says Rosie in white letters. And Rockwell's paintings are infused with so much symbolism. And if you really study this painting closely, you can see all sorts of things that Rockwell is trying to get across to use. For one, there's a flag in the background. She's wearing a Red Cross button. She has a V for Victory button. She's eating this very All-American bologna sandwich.

Jane McGrath: And my favorite part of the little clues inside is that her foot is over the famous book Mein Kampf, the autobiography of Adolf Hitler.

Candace Gibson: So, there you go. That packs a powerful statement in and of itself. And you mention that she has tools in her lap. And we should mention that the main tool is a riveting tool. So she is, by all definitions and all purposes, a riveter. And so we have this amalgamation of Americana and anti-Nazi sentiment and femininity - because she is still a woman. And even though she has muscles and she is in traditional male garb, she does exude a certain sense of femininity.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, she still has make-up on and she embodies both sides, I guess.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And the thing that really touched me, and I didn't see this connection on my own. I read about it. Her stance actually mimics that of the prophet Isaiah from the Sistine Chapel.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I read that, too. And that really shocked me until I went and looked it up, that picture, and it really is strikingly similar. Rockwell must've taken it from that.

Candace Gibson: And you get this sense that this image of Rosie is very much steeped in antiquity and in a higher purpose of sorts. And he's almost making her an archetype, not just for women, but for people. This is what we should be during wartime. We should be active and proactive citizens who are educated and patriotic and doing what's right. And I guess the word do that brings us back to the other image of Rosie - the idea that Rosie was an empowering female figure who told everyone that we can do it. I think that's how many of us look at her today, because I think that most of us would imagine this other polka dotted Rosie, I'll call her, as opposed to the Rockwell Rosie.

Jane McGrath: And like I said, it's much more defiant. It challenges the viewer to look at it.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. And I think that the history most of us know behind this particular image is that it was propaganda, maybe on behalf of the U.S. government, maybe on behalf of the National Ad Council. And it was designed to draw women into the workplace and motivate them to go fill these wartime factory or other jobs, like postal worker jobs, that had been vacated after the men had gone to the battlefront. And that's not the case.

Jane McGrath: That's right. It's an easy assumption to make, comparing it especially to the Nazis of the time. The government was actually producing this propaganda, where that wasn't the case for this Rosie.

Candace Gibson: She was actually - do demystify her a little bit - drawn by J. Howard Miller. And he didn't draw her of his own volition. He was employed by an advertising agency and he was doing this for Westinghouse Electric Company. And the idea was that this was a poster that was supposed to be displayed for a very specific amount of time. I think, even on the bottom of the poster, you can see in faint letters it says "Post from Feb. 15-28, 1943."

Jane McGrath: That's not much time.

Candace Gibson: No, it's not. But I guess it served its purpose. And there's a long history behind Westinghouse Electric Manufacturing Company and their factories. They had many series of posters like this designed to motivate and energize their workers. They weren't drawing people into the workplace; they were trying to motivate those who were already there. And furthermore, even if this Rosie was trying to communicate a public message, it wouldn't have been public beyond the walls of Westinghouse -

Jane McGrath: That's right.

Candace Gibson: - because it was intended for private use only.

Jane McGrath: So you could make the case that this isn't for recruitment at all, this We Can Do It Rosie. What I read was the polka dotted Rosie could actually be a way to discourage labor movements inside of these Westinghouse factories because communism was beginning to be a problem. So th e company would commission these posters not to say, "Hey, women. You should take up your man's work," but instead be like, "Do your job."

Candace Gibson: And I think there were actually three specific goals that Westinghouse had in mind behind this polka dotted Rosie and other posters, and a series similar to that. And that was to increase production, decrease absenteeism, and to keep strikes at bay. No one wanted that rising in the factories. And when we look at this Rosie - we picked apart Rockwell's Rosie, the different symbols there - there aren't many symbols when it comes to polka dotted Rosie, the J. Howard Miller Rosie! But you can see she is a Westinghouse employee. She has the nametag on, in the bottom corner it says Westinghouse, and I think in a lot of reproductions today, J. Howard Miller's name has been cropped out. But clearly this was produced on behalf of Westinghouse. And she is very feminine - even more so compared to the Rockwell Rosie. You can clearly see on her hand that she's wearing a touch of nail polish. You can see the eyeliner. You can see her mascara. You can see the little curls of her hair underneath her headscarf.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, she's much more attractive than the Rockwell Rosie in a lot of ways.

Candace Gibson: She is. And if you look at other posters that J. Howard Miller designed; you can see that that's not uncommon. She's actually the most rough and tumble of all the women featured on Miller's posters. We see a lot of the World War II sentiment where women are crying and maybe a caption with, "Wanting won't bring him home any sooner."

Jane McGrath: The stereotypical woman.

Candace Gibson: The stereotypical woman who's wasting away at home, waiting for a man to come back. The idea being, "Go ahead and get to the factory." We know that's not the case with Miller's Rosie. But we know through and through she is a Westinghouse girl. And it's so funny because, if you look at some of the photographs of other Westinghouse employees or you read about Westinghouse's history, you know that that upward thrust of the fist is characteristic of that company. Because they used to use it at meetings or rallies to motivate the workers - so while today we put a very feminist spin on what Rosie is saying we can do with that upper thrust of the fist, that would've been typical of men and women in Westinghouse factories during World War II.

Jane McGrath: And it's also interesting how this flipped around. During the World War II, this Rockwell Rosie was the more popular one - and how this one came to be. If it was only seen by so many people working in those factory for those weeks - because it all comes down to the fact that Rockwell's painting is actually copyrighted. It's a copyrighted image. And so you have to pay money to use it - it's protected. Miller's drawing didn't have any such protection, and so people could use it for whatever they wanted. And it fit into the feminist theory so well, that it became so popular and superseded Rockwell's painting.

Candace Gibson: Yeah. I think today the National Archives say it's one of the top ten most requested images. And I think that, as far as feminists go and the idea of correcting the misconceptions we have behind Rosie, this is a perfect demonstration. Like we said, because she was representative of both the men and women in Westinghouse factories, that speaks volumes. Because other women who went to work, not just as riveters, but in other fields of the manufacturing industry - or even as postal workers - when the men came back from war, they were asked to leave their jobs. This wasn't the huge floodgate opening of women shuffling into the workplace that we would like to think and hope that it was.

Jane McGrath: It was like, "You did your job. Now go home."

Candace Gibson: Yeah. "We appreciate it. Thanks a lot. We're done here." And I think, to an extent, it did open a floodgate of sorts because women saw that they were capable, they could do men's work. It wasn't as hard as they had imagined. They could still be feminine and still be women while they did it. But there was also a very early type of glass ceiling that we see, too. Even though they were doing the same work that men had done before the war, they weren't getting paid as much. And there weren't as many women coming into the workplace from homes in the private sector as there were women who were already in the workplace, or minority women - unmarried women who were just getting into these manufacturing positions to get higher wages.

Jane McGrath: That's what I was surprised at. We buy into this myth that all of a sudden mothers started working at factories where the fathers in the family were. And that wasn't the case. It was women who were not married housewives. They were just looking for a job to feed themselves.

Candace Gibson: Right. And that's an important detail to note. If you look at Rockwell's Rosie and Miller's Rosie, neither is wearing a wedding ring of any sort.

Jane McGrath: And one side thing about Rockwell's Rosie is that she's actually wearing loafers as opp osed to what men of the time would be wearing, which were steel toed boots for a riveter. You're doing this heavy work and you should have protected feet. They actually didn't make the steel toed women's shoes at the time until a little bit later, towards the end of the war. So it was very accurate of Rockwell to incorporate those brown loafers into Rosie.

Candace Gibson: How funny. He got all the details right. And it seems to ironic today that you can get this famous Miller We Can Do It image on everything from oven mitts to aprons to coffee cups, things we associate with a housewife - and apron and an oven mitt. But it's an image people are very fond of - almost as fond as I am of little Snuggle Bear. Now, hopefully you know the real story of Rosie the Riveter and you won't make the mistake that many people do about her. If you want to learn even more about Rosie and World War II history - and just women in general - be sure to visit howstuffworks.com.

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