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And that's the tee... on Rosie the Riveter, pop culture feminist

Photos of girls wearing Rosie the Riveter apparel from the Feminista on a pink background

Hey Feministas! It’s time for our May edition of And That’s the Tee… where we spill the tea on the inspiration behind some of our favorite graphic tees—and in this case, also stickers and totes ;) 

We’ve all seen that iconic poster of a woman in a blue jumpsuit, hair tied back in a red polka dot bandana and sleeves rolled up, proudly flexing her muscles below the words, “We Can Do It!” But where did it come from? What the heck is a riveter? And why has this photo gained so much cultural attention over the years?

Today we’re taking a quick look back at the weird and winding herstory of Rosie the Riveter, our most beloved symbol of American feminism and empowered working women. So roll up those sleeves, ladies, and learn a little about how women stepped into the workforce and into their power. 



The lady heroes of World War II

If you know anything about Rosie already, it’s probably that she represents the many women who, during World War II, stepped into vacant roles at shipyards and factories while men were overseas serving in the military. It all began in December 1941, when the attack on Pearl Harbor solidified U.S. involvement in the war, and the labor pool got much smaller, practically overnight. 

On top of that, jobs in military manufacturing like lathe work, welding, and the building of ships and aircrafts—all traditionally male jobsneeded to be filled quickly to support the war effort at home. In many ways, women were a last resort for these kinds of jobs, but thanks to the efforts of high-ranking feminist women like Francis Perkins and Mary Anderson, they were set up to not only succeed in their work, but also to change the U.S. workforce forever. 


Empowered women empower women

Francis Perkins was the first female Secretary of Labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and when the time came to call upon women for help in production, she was ready with a propaganda campaign to shape a positive public perception of female workers. She also worked with the U.S. Employment Service to lay out clear channels for women (many of whom had never sought out work before) to find the most in-demand jobs.  

Mary Anderson, who headed the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor at the time, was also an essential force in the mobilization of women in wartime jobs, including—you guessed it—riveting! She realized early on that riveting was the most common job in military aircraft production, and also fairly repetitive and easy to train for. (Quick aside: rivets are the pieces of hardware that fasten two pieces of sheet metal together, and each military aircraft had thousands of them, which needed to be meticulously placed. Neat!) 

Mary focused her efforts on the mass production and distribution of training videos and efficient onboarding of women who were totally new to riveting and turned them into productive, successful, empowered workers. As many as 7 million women entered the workforce between 1941 and 1944, and many manufacturing companies, Boeing included, noticed an increase in efficiency with women on the assembly line--is anyone surprised?!


The many origins of Rosie the Riveter

So we all know Rosie the Riveter from that famous yellow poster, but where did the name come from? Turns out there’s a little controversy around who the real life inspiration for the Rosie actually was, but it turns out the name first appeared in a song written by John Jacob Loeb and Redd Evans in 1942, which was performed by different popular bands throughout the years and broadcast nationally on the radio throughout war time. It functioned similarly to the propaganda coming from those ladies in government, with lyrics celebrating the modern working woman:


While other girls attend their favorite cocktail bar

Sipping martinis, munching caviar

There’s a girl who’s really putting them to shame

Rosie is her name

All the day long whether rain or shine

She’s a part of the assembly line

She’s making history, working for victory

Rosie the Riveter


In March 1943, a Norman Rockwell painting inspired by that song was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, featuring a woman in a blue jumpsuit and red head scarf. The subject of that painting was his neighbor, Mary Doyle Keefe, and is considered by some to be the true Rosie the Riveter, though she was a telephone operator at the time. 

The famous poster we all know and love was originally produced around the same time in 1943 by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and displayed in its factories to boost morale and encourage more women to join the workforce, but reportedly only spent about two weeks(!!) on the walls there. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the poster resurfaced and made waves in as a feminist cultural icon. 


Making space for women in the workplace

Though the controversy around the real Rosie has never really been resolved, many believe that this famous interpretation of the Rosie character is likely based on a woman named Naomi Parker Fraley, who worked at a Naval Air Station at the time, and was known for her fashionable workplace attire. (Here's a photo.) 

Regardless of who she was actually based on though, the important takeaway from this story is that women didn’t just step up and fill the gap in a time of need, they were also the ones orchestrating the movementthe feminists who knew the future was female and then made it that way. And we owe so much to all those hardworking, badass Rosies who opened doors for us in the workforce, even today. 

Since that famous poster resurfaced, Rosie has been popularized as a symbol of feminism and powerful women in America. Even Leslie Knope, one of our favorite fictional feminists dressed as Rosie in an episode of Parks and Rec (check it). We feature her on a Feminista t-shirt, tote, and sticker because we're big believers in what she represents: a self-possessed woman who clearly knows she's capable of anything... owning her power and rocking the hell out of a jumpsuit.

It's how we imagine our graphic tees being worn, by women who own their power, speak up for what they believe in, and want to be comfy and cute, damnit, at the same damn time :) So as you head into the work week, we hope you'll be inspired by the women of the 1940s who led the way and bring some Rosie energy into whatever you're up to today.



Want to stay in the loop on all the Feminista tea? Scroll down to sign up for our weekly newsletter (and blog!), The F Word, where we cover all things style and substance, from important feminist issues, current events, and history to pop culture and fashion.

And if you want to get ahead of the Father's Day gift game (it's on June 20th this year) you might want to think about our Men of Quality t-shirt to show your dad just what kind of man he is/can be :) See you next week!


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