A Riveting Story: How Rosie Became an Icon

March 8 is International Women’s Day, recognized in many parts of the world as a time to honor women’s economic, political and social achievements. In the United States, it’s a great day to reflect on the story of Rosie the Riveter.

As World War II began, the need for men to serve in the military left a severe shortage of workers, especially in factories producing ammunition and war supplies. Government and industrial leaders needed women to step into the workforce — and they found a star recruiter in Rosie.

In 1942, the national hit song “Rosie The Riveter,” written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, portrayed Rosie as a tireless assembly line worker doing whatever was needed to aid in the war effort.

The song was inspired by Rosalind P. Walter, a night-shift worker who helped build the Corsair F4U marine gull-winged fighter. But the character of Rosie soon became more closely associated with Rose Will Monroe, who helped build B-29 and B-24 bombers at the Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti, Mich. The song had become a hit, and when the actor Walter Pidgeon visited the factory and found out that a real-life Rosie the Riveter worked there, he put her in a film promoting the sale of war bonds.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller had been commissioned by the manufacturing company Westinghouse to create a series of posters that raised employees’ morale and patriotic pride. One of them was headlined “We Can Do It!” It was scheduled to be displayed for just two weeks at Westinghouse factories in the Midwest, where women were making helmet liners. But it wasn’t known as “Rosie The Riveter” at the time — in fact, it wasn’t even seen outside Westinghouse until the 1980s, when it was rediscovered and became associated with feminism.

However, “We Can Do It!” served as the forerunner for the May 29, 1943 Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell, showing Rosie on lunch break with a rivet gun on her lap. After the cover appeared on newsstands, many real-life Rosies gained attention for their achievements in the workplace — most notably Rose Bonavita, who in June 1943 teamed with Jennie Florio to drill 900 holes and drive 3,345 rivets into the tail end of a Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bomber during a six-hour overnight shift at a General Motors aircraft plant in North Tarrytown, N.Y. She later received a letter of commendation from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Thanks in large part to Rosie’s popularity, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce rocketed from 27 percent to 37 percent between 1940-45. Women were especially vital within the U.S. aircraft industry; they constituted 65 percent of that workforce during the war, vs. just 1 percent before the war. By 1944, 20 million women were in the American workforce, including 6 million in factories. Their success paved the way for subsequent generations who sought equal rights and equal pay in the workplace, opening doors and forever changing the lives of millions of women. Thank you, Rosie, for giving us an opportunity!

– Judi Bauer