Will the ‘real’ Rosie the Riveter please flex?

(Illustration by Elizabeth von Oehsen/The Washington Post)
9 min

She’s one of the most iconic symbols of womanhood in history, right up there with the Venus de Milo and the Statue of Liberty. Sleeves rolled up and hair tied in a kerchief, Rosie the Riveter flexes a biceps before, presumably, turning on her power tools and getting to work on her latest B-17 bomber.

Pink, Beyoncé, Sarah Palin, Kari Lake and Kendall Jenner have all paid homage, and she was lampooned on “Saturday Night Live.” There’s a Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in California, and March 21 has been celebrated as Rosie the Riveter Day since 2017.

Between 5 and 7 million women worked defense industry jobs during World War II, according to the Labor Department. Some hadn’t previously been employed, while an estimated 12 to 14 million women already in the workforce traded low-paying jobs in laundries and restaurants for skilled work with better pay, jobs left open as men headed to the front lines. They worked as mechanics, welders, streetcar drivers, clerical workers, police officers, chemists and, yes, riveters, according to Penny Colman, author of “Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II,” answering a call from the government to temporarily suspend what were then firm gender roles to help win World War II.

But which of them, if any, inspired the icon? It’s complicated.

The phrase “Rosie the Riveter” made its first public appearance in a wartime song of the same name, by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. It was one of many songs written to boost morale and patriotic feeling, like “You Can’t Do Business with Hitler,” “Dig, Dig, Dig Your Victory Garden” and “Get on the Bond Wagon.” Typical verses went:

While other girls attend their fav’rite cocktail bar,
Sipping dry 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 (brrr) the Riveter.

(The “brrr” part is where a backup singer typically mimics the mechanical sound of a power tool, a flourish likely added due to the musicians’ strike that lasted from 1942 to 1944, when record companies relied on vocalists and a cappella groups to cover all the musical parts a big-band orchestra normally would.)

The song — performed by the Four Vagabonds, Kay Kyser and others — took off in early 1943, and visual artists incorporated the character in their own work, including one of the most famous at the time, Norman Rockwell. In May 1943, he painted an iconic Rosie the Riveter for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

But that image probably isn’t the one you’re thinking of, the one with the “We Can Do It!” slogan. That one was designed by J. Howard Miller and wasn’t called Rosie the Riveter at the time. It wasn’t even that well known during the war, used only on the walls of Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Co. factories in several states in 1943 to discourage strikes and absenteeism. It didn’t become famous until the 1980s, when it was embraced by feminists, eventually being picked for a Rosie the Riveter postage stamp in 1999.

The federal government also filmed a series of public service announcements with their own Rosie the Riveter, and Hollywood supplied a Rosie who riveted in the 1944 film “Rosie the Riveter.”

So which is the “real” one? The most famous Rosie at the time? The inspiration for the song, or the Rockwell painting? Or the poster that became popular decades later? No one can decide. Since 1994, the New York Times has written at least five obituaries for various Rosies.

Take your pick.

The traditional historians’ pick

Rosina Bonavita was an actual riveter working on warplanes at a factory in Tarrytown, N.Y., when, in June 1943, she and a co-worker installed 3,345 rivets in less than six hours without a single mistake. She and her friend made the local newspapers, and, according to Colman, later scholars like Stephen Ambrose and Robert Sickels mistakenly named her the first Rosie the Riveter, sometimes putting the factory in California and not New York. But the song preceded her moment in the sun, Colman noted, as did the Rockwell depiction. Bonavita always denied being the first. After the war, Bonavita married her high school sweetheart and became a homemaker. She died in 1994.

The most famous at the time

In 1943, Rose Will Monroe was a young widow with two kids working at an aircraft plant in Ypsilanti, Mich. Film star Walter Pidgeon was passing through town while on a tour promoting war bonds when he heard they had a “real” riveter named Rosie, just like the song. Pidgeon asked her to film a spot for war bonds right there in the factory. The ad became a series of ads played in theaters between movies. At the time of the war, Monroe’s Rosie was more famous than any other. Today, the ads are nearly impossible to find. Monroe later started a construction company and achieved her lifelong dream of becoming an airplane pilot, according to her Times obituary. She died in 1997.

The purported song inspirer

Rosalind P. Walter grew up wealthy and remained so all her life. She did not have to work, ever, but when the call came for women to contribute to the war effort, she, like Bonavita, picked up the overnight shift riveting at a nearby aircraft manufacturer. She impressed a society columnist for Hearst newspapers, who devoted a 1942 column to her. Songwriters Evans and Loeb read the column and were inspired to write their song “Rosie the Riveter,” according to the Times, though it doesn’t cite a source for this claim. Walter later became a philanthropist, especially funding public television, and died in 2020.

The first with the nickname?

Like most of the women on this list, Adeline Rose O’Malley went to work during the war at an aircraft manufacturing plant, this one owned by Boeing and located in Wichita. Like so many other women, she was nicknamed “Rosie the Riveter” by her colleagues. But there was one important difference: She allegedly got that nickname before the song was written, as early as January 1942. After the song hit the charts, the Wichita Eagle ran a story with her photo in September 1943 claiming her as the “original.”

Norman Rockwell’s model

Mary Doyle Keefe was a 20-year-old telephone operator in a small Vermont town in 1943 when her neighbor asked if she would model for him for a painting. The neighbor was famous illustrator Norman Rockwell, and the painting, when it appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, became one of the first and most iconic depictions of Rosie the Riveter. It shows Keefe in overalls, semi-flexing while holding a ham sandwich in one hand, a rivet gun in her lap and a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” under her foot. Keefe, who was paid $10 for posing, became a dental hygienist, married, had four children and died in 2015. The painting sold at auction for $4.9 million in 2002 and is now on display at a museum in Arkansas.

The self-proclaimed ‘We can do it!’ model

Geraldine Hoff Doyle was never a riveter, and she worked at a Michigan steelworks for only two weeks during World War II, but in that time, her family later said, she was photographed by a wire photographer. Four decades later, she came across a photo in a magazine article that she swore was of her from that time, wearing a denim jumpsuit and working at a lathe, hair wrapped in a polka-dot bandanna and makeup perfect. Then, in the 1990s, she saw Miller’s “We can do it!” poster. It “was like looking in the mirror,” she later said. The photo of her had obviously been the inspiration for the poster, she told a local history magazine. Soon, the story went national. By the time she died in 2010, she had been declared a “feminist icon” and made it into a Michigan women’s group’s hall of fame.

The man who later debunked her claim, James J. Kimble, has always maintained that Doyle was not a hoaxer and probably sincerely believed both images were of her.

The actual ‘We can do it!’ model?

Kimble, a communications professor at Seton Hall University, studies the history of domestic propaganda, and when he read Doyle’s obituary, he was struck by how shaky the evidence of her identity was, and how most media seemed to take it at face value. This sent him on a years-long quest to confirm the identity of the woman in the photo whom Doyle said was her. When he published his findings in 2016, he was able to prove the photo had been taken at a naval facility in California, months before Doyle’s stint at the Michigan steelworks. The photographer’s original caption was: “[P]retty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating.” That led him to Naomi Parker Fraley, a retired waitress who was aware of Doyle’s claim and not too pleased about it.

Kimble also proved the photo was widely published at the time — often in stories about “factory fashion” and the “scandal” of women wearing pants — but there is no smoking gun in Miller’s papers proving it inspired the woman in his poster. Still, when Fraley died at 96 in 2018, myriad obituaries touted her as the “real” Rosie the Riveter. The Times even wrote she had “the most legitimate claim of all.”

All of them

At the end of the day, all of these women answered the call to take wartime jobs, keeping society running smoothly and helping the nation manufacture the materiel needed to win the war. Millions of other women joined them, and all have a rightful claim as a, if not the, real Rosie the Riveter.