Nearly everyone has seen J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster at some point even if they didn’t realize it. It depicts a young woman wearing a red polka-dot bandana with the sleeve of her blue denim shirt rolled up, flexing her right bicep. Most people know the woman portrayed in this painting as “Rosie the Riveter.” Miller’s illustration can be found on all kinds of merchandise ranging from coffee mugs to T-shirts to pinback buttons to candles. So what’s the history behind it and why is it so popular? Did you know that there are actually two “Rosie the Riveter” images? Read on to find out the whole story behind this empowering feminist icon.

‘We Can Do It!’

In 1943, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company’s labor-management committee commissioned freelance Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller to paint a 17-by-22-inch poster. The company wanted to display his “We Can Do It!” poster in its munitions factories for roughly two weeks to boost morale and increase production among its women factory workers. Since then, it has taken on a life of its own.

There are a number of misconceptions that have been popularized since Miller’s poster hit Westinghouse’s factory floors. Contrary to popular belief, the painting was not well-known outside of Westinghouse’s factories. It did not gain worldwide fame until it was rediscovered by the National Archives’ staff in the mid-1980s. Miller did not base his portrait on anyone in particular, even though some women have claimed they were the inspiration for the piece. Westinghouse didn’t employ riveters during the war either, so “Rosie” couldn’t be a riveter. So where did the fictional character “Rosie the Riveter” come from, and what made her so popular during the 1940s?

‘Rosie the Riveter’

On May 29, 1943, millions of people saw Norman Rockwell’s painting “Rosie the Riveter” on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. In Rockwell’s painting, “Rosie” is suspended on a beam taking a lunch break. Her name is inscribed on her lunch pail, and her foot is resting on a tattered copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf. If you would have asked people in the 1940s what the Rosie the Riveter looked like, they would have described Rockwell’s painting to you, not Miller’s poster.

Rosie the Riveter mural in Sacramento, California

Rosie the Riveter mural in Sacramento, California. (Library of Congress)

Unlike Miller, Rockwell modeled his portrait on a real person. A 19-year-old telephone operator named Mary Doyle Keefe posed in his studio. Rockwell’s “Rosie” mirrored Michelangelo’s muscular prophet Isaiah found on the Sistine Chapel. “Several weeks later when it came out he called me one day,” Keefe recalled years later, “and he said, ‘Mary, I apologize. I made you very large.” “Rosie the Riveter” came to symbolize the role thousands of women played in supporting the war effort while their husbands, sweethearts, fathers and brothers were away fighting in the Second World War.

Searching For the Real Rosie

Popularized by Rockwell’s painting and the song by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, the media sought out real-life “Rosies.” One New York newspaper shared the story of Rose Bonavita and Jennie Fiorito who set a riveting record at a General Motors plant in Tarrytown, New York. Likewise, Rosie Will Monroe worked on an assembly line as a riveter constructing planes at a Ford factory in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Actor Walter Pidgeon cast Monroe in a government film to help sell war bonds. There was even a Hollywood movie produced in 1944 called Rosie the Riveter starring Jane Frazee. The truth is that there was no single Rosie, but thousands of women lending a hand to the war effort.

A Feminist Icon

While Miller’s poster was far less well-known than Rockwell’s painting during the Second World War, it has become a popular symbol of empowerment for women. Those who wear merchandise with the iconic image on it, don it with pride. “Rosier the Riveter” embodies strength and equality and continues to inspire women of all ages and demographics.

Further Reading

Kimble, James J. and Lester C. Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 9, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 533-569.

Wong, Hannah Wai Ling. “A Riveting ‘Rosie’: J. Howard Miller’s We Can Do It! Poster and Twentieth-Century American Visual Culture.” Master’s thesis, University of Maryland, 2007.