The untold story of “Rosie”
The bright colors and optimistic message of this beloved poster have captured the hearts of American women for many years.
The upbeat “We Can Do It” slogan, along with the ready-to-work appearance of the poster's model has inspired more than one generation of American women.
For many, the poster is symbolic of “Rosie the Riveter” and is believed to have inspired women to enter the workforce during World War II and fill factories.
However, that was not entirely accurate.
In 1942, Westinghouse Electric, an American manufacturing company, hired J. Howard Miller, a graphic artist, to create a series of posters that would be displayed to the company's male and female employees.
The goal was to use the posters created by Miller to raise worker morale, boost work ethic, lower absenteeism and prevent the rise of strikes or labor unrest in Westinghouse's female and male employees.
Many of the posters created by Miller for Westinghouse directed employees to bring questions and concerns to management before spreading unease with their fellow coworkers, or encouraged them to work harder alongside their fellow employees.
Less than 2,000 “We Can Do It” posters were printed, and all were dispersed within Westinghouse factories starting on Monday, Feb. 15, 1943.
According to authors James Kimble and Lester Olson, the women who worked in the Westinghouse factories were not likely to have seen the posters as uplifting; in fact, many of the employees at the Westinghouse factories were regularly "encouraged" by paternalistic and controlling workplace posters that promoted management authority and employee compliance while also incorporating themes of patriotic pride.
The bright, upbeat image served as gentle propaganda to boost employee morale and keep production lines from lagging within the Westinghouse factories.
The badge on the "We Can Do It!" model's collar identifies her as a Westinghouse Electric plant floor employee and the pictured red, white and blue clothing was a subtle call to patriotism, one of the frequent tactics used by factories and employers during the World War II era.
Despite the fact that the blue-uniformed and red bandana-wearing model featured on the Westinghouse poster is now associated with Rosie the Riveter, during the 1940s, the poster was not associated with either the Rosie that was inspired by the song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, or the painting by Norman Rockwell.
Due to the fact that the “We Can Do It” poster was only displayed for a two-week stint to Westinghouse employees, the poster was not well known and received very little – if any – attention from sources outside of Westinghouse.
After being displayed in February of 1943, the “We Can Do It” poster disappeared from the public eye until 1982, when the poster was reproduced in a Washington Post article about war-time production posters.
It was this emergence into the public that brought attention to the poster.
Quickly, the poster was re-appropriated to convey a message of female empowerment, as the “we” in “We Can Do It” was believed to be directed towards women as a way of uniting female workers against gender inequality – which was fairly opposite of the message that the poster originally intended to convey.
In fact, despite the fact that the “We Can Do It” model is associated with Rosie the Riveter today, the original poster was not even hung in factories were female riveters worked; the factories that displayed the poster were making Micarta helmet liners.
A historian for Westinghouse has noted that the model would have been more likely to have been nicknamed "Molly the Micarta Molder or Helen the Helmet Liner Maker."
Today, the image of the blue and red-clad female worker proudly rolling up her sleeves is widely known, popular and beloved. It stands for female empowerment, gender equality and (due to having little copyright protection) is a popular choice for advertisers and political campaign managers when it comes to attracting female shoppers and voters.
Unlike Rosie the Riveter, the Westinghouse "We Can Do It" model is nameless, though there have been various claims and assumptions about who the hardworking brunette might have been.
Even if the poster received its start as propaganda that would allow companies to maximize the work efforts of their employees without suffering the losses of labor or union strikes, the poster remains in American hearts as a portrayal of women in the workforce and female empowerment.... even if it's not Rosie or a riveter pictured.