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Christine Chau

UWP 001


February 6, 2017

The Changing Rhetoric of Rosie the Riveter

During World War II, the American home front was full of propaganda posters to promote

the war effort. Many of these have become iconic images that are still culturally significant

today. The We Can Do It! poster, also known as Rosie the Riveter, is one of the enduring

images of the era. The poster was not a widespread poster during the time and was primarily

used in Westinghouse Electric factories. The poster was created by American graphic artist J.

Howard Miller in 1942 and features a woman in a factory uniform flexing her arm with the

caption We Can Do It! Contrary to popular belief, the purpose of the image was not to

encourage women contribute to the war effort by joining the workforce and breaking the trend of

a womans role in the home. The image was intended as patriotic propaganda to inspire female

workers to keep up with increased production demands and build morale and support for

American interests (Kimble & Olson, 535) . Although, the image had no intention of promoting

womens rights it now serves as symbol for womens empowerment . In the 1980s, feminists

rediscovered the poster and appropriated the image as a strong portrayal of female

empowerment. Over time, some feminists objected to the conventional image of Rosie because it

enforces ideas of whiteness and traditional femininity and created more inclusive variations to

emphasize the need for intersectionality. Its cause transcends its original purpose and has become

a staple image in American culture and a feminist icon. The images simple, yet bold design is
effective and conveys the methods of persuasion towards the audience in differing ways

depending on its original context, and its current context as a mainstream feminist icon.

The poster features a young white woman wearing the Westinghouse Electric worker

uniform and a red polka dot bandana in her hair with her arms flexed and a determined look on

her face. It illustrates her saying We Can Do It! in a large speech bubble and bold white font

and a bright yellow background. A primary reason behind the images timelessness and

prevalence is its simple, yet effective design. The posters bold color scheme of red, white, blue,

and yellow makes the image stand out and evoke thoughts of patriotism for the workers viewing

it. During wartime, emphasizing national pride was an effective tactic to gain citizen support and

make them more willing to make sacrifices for war production.

The straightforward and strong diction of the message We Can Do It! is a powerful idea and

motivating message that drives the idea that We as Americans can unite to win the war. Rosie

is also a striking representation of American women that is unlike many portrayals of women in

the past. Her stern and tough expression and rolled up sleeves express her readiness to work

which is a stark contrast with the portrayals of submissive housewives in the past. However, her

image does not completely deviate from the traditional image of women, so the audience does

not feel alienated by a more masculine portrayal of a woman. She is a white woman with

feminine facial features wearing makeup and has stylized curls peeking out of her bandana. This

balance between feminine features and the powerful portrayal of a working woman represents

the ideal woman during the trying times of war and calls factory workers to action. This powerful

yet conventional portrayal of a woman was intended to appeal to the majority of Americans and

present them the ideal form of an American woman. In order to convey an acceptable image

displaying the strength of women, the poster portrays a white woman to represent the majority
and show a more convincing and valued representation of women. However, this portrayal is

an idealistic form the working woman and does not represent some of the real Rosies of the

time. Many of the female laborers were in marginalized groups in society. The poster displays

these female laborers as young, conventionally attractive women, when the true Rosies were

working-class wives, widows, divorcees, and students who needed to achieve reasonable

standard of living (Endres 19). Rosie the Riveter presents an idea of the female worker

contributing to her country in a manner does not accurately represent many of the actual working

women in the factories. This romanticized representation of this group erases the identity of

many of the real Rosies and replaces it with a picture perfect white woman which is the most

effective way to persuade the audience as patriotic propaganda.

After the rediscovery of the poster in the 1982 Washington Post article Poster Art for

Patriotism Sake, feminists used the image to promote female strength. The simplicity of the

poster was useful for feminist protest through its straightforward message. The We Can Do It!

caption shifted from we Americans to we women. This interpretation lacks the patriotism of

the initial message and alters it to an image of womens empowerment. This idea in the context

of current day feminism, shows a simple yet powerful image of a woman proclaiming We Can

Do it! which expresses the capability of women at any task. An essential persuasive feature of

the poster is the idea of the power of women the through concept of the blue-collar worker. Rosie

is depicted wearing a blue factory uniform which expresses grit and hard work of women during

a time of oppression. Rosies flexed arm also represents the strength from a pose that opposes

the traditional and demure gestures seen in media portrayals of women. The rhetorical effect

Rosie the riveter has on feminists an encouraging picture of a woman getting to work, either

literally or figuratively through means of activism. Despite merely serving as propaganda to

encourage women to work, it still is an impactful image that evokes inspiration and

empowerment for many women. The balance of femininity and strength of Rosie resonates with

those that use the image as a feminist symbol well. Although it has become an image directly

associated with the feminist movement, the enforced idea of whiteness and traditional beauty of

the image is a constraint that has implications of exclusionary feminism that values white women

over women of color.

Feelings of exclusion and frustration from some feminists grew over time due to many women

did not see themselves in Rosie, an icon that supposedly represented all women. The posters

simple, yet effective design allowed for it to become a canvas for variations of Rosie the Riveter

to promote different causes. Feminists have adopted Rosies image and created versions that

represent the diversity in modern society and have altered the We Can Do It! saying into

different languages and political messages. One well known adaptation is the We ALL Can Do

It! poster by Tumblr artist Valentin Brown in 2014. Browns image features three women of

color each wearing unique versions of Rosies clothing. The artist uses different textures of

denim and portray each woman with individual features such as natural afro-textured hair and

another woman wearing a hijab. Instead of the patriotic and unified colors of the original poster,

Brown uses these unique textures and physical features to express the idea of individuality of

each woman. The We ALL Can Do It! speech bubble puts emphasis on all to addresses the

issue of white feminists often excluding women of color from the discourse and dismissing the

issues women of color face the statement that Feminism is worthless without intersectionality

and inclusion. at the bottom of the poster drives the idea that feminist requires all women to

unite and understand the unique issues and forms of oppression women face based on their other

social identities. This image appropriates the poster and makes it more representative of the
increasingly diverse America seen today and addresses the nuances and differing experiences

women face because of their place in society. Browns image is one of the many recreations that

tackle the history of feminism that often dismisses the experiences of women color and the

divisiveness of the white feminism of early womens rights movement and some current feminist

spaces today.

Rosie the Riveter is still valued as a part of the fabric of American history and a pervasive

feminist image. Its features held great influence during the 1940s and still serves as a powerful

concept today. The image has evolved from its original use, and has created discussion over

whether the original paternalistic and patriotic purpose of the image is an accurate representation

of sentiment of women taking possession of their capabilities that many view of it today. While

the posters essential message resonates today, feminists have appropriated the image as

representative of a womans strength in all aspects of society and have created variations of the

image to be more inclusive to todays diverse America and to cater to intersectional feminism.

Regardless of the variations of meaning throughout the years, Rosie the Riveter message of We

Can Do It! continues to hold great power and paves way for conversations of how

representations of women in media reflect society.

Works Cited

Endres, Kathleen L. "American Icons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things that

have Shaped Our Culture by Dennis R. Hall and Susan Grove Hall, Editors." The Journal of

American Culture 3.4 (2006): n. pag. Google Books. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.

Honey, Maureen. Creating Rosie the Riveter: class, gender and propaganda during World War

II. Amherst: U of Massachusetts Press, 1985. Google Books. Web. 8 Mar. 2017.

Kimble, JJ, and LC Olson. Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and

Misconception in J. Howard Millers We Can Do It! Poster. Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9.4

(2006): 533569. Rhetoric & Public Affairs. Web.