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Rosie the Riveter's Impact on Society

Updated on January 6, 2014

Rosie made her first grand appearance on a poster in the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943. Norman Rockwell illustrated a young, attractive female worker that was saying the infamous quote “We Can Do It!.” This artwork sparked creativity across the country that led to endless pieces of art based upon this poster, including the song “Rosie the Riveter” by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. But, few individuals are aware of the roots of Rosie the Riveter and the original purpose for her creation. During the 1940s, the United States of America was fighting in World War II. When the males were enlisted and sent oversees to fight, there was a shortage of workers in numerous fields of the job industry. In order for the United States to continue producing all of the means necessary to succeed in winning the war, the government realized that the male workers needed to be replaced in the work field. The only Americans left to fulfill this duty were the females, who at the time were only viewed as “housewives.” Therefore, “the government decided to launch a propaganda campaign to sell the importance of the war effort and to lure women into working” (Sorensen). The government decided to endorse a specific character that females would portray as a role model; this led to the promotion of “the fictional character of “Rosie the Riveter” as the ideal woman worker: loyal, efficient, patriotic, and pretty” (Yellin). Rosie the Riveter’s original purpose was to ignite patriotism in females so that they could temporarily leave the home to fill the man’s place in society, but ever since the first appearance of this character, women have been inspired to exceed societal expectations.

Before the 1940s, life was vastly different for women across America. Times were slowly changing in the educational field and workforce environment. In the 1900s, “only 18 percent of women over the age of 13 participated in the labor force” (Acemoglu, Autor, & Lyle). But, the female role in society reached new heights every decade as time progressed. The Women’s Rights Movement slowly began to creep into the minds of women and by the early twenties, women were becoming more prevalent individuals in society. During the 1920s, many opportunities were arising for women in the United States: the 19th Amendment was added to the constitution allowing women to vote, the first female governor was elected which allowed “fresh interest and energy into political life at the local, ward, and regional level, and women were allowed to compete for the first time in the Olympic Games (Flexner, 325). By 1928, “women earned 39 percent of college degrees given in the United States” (“Decade by Decade: 1920s – Women of the Century”). Females in the work force at the time held simple jobs such as secretaries, but were slowly climbing the ladder of the business world as they obtained more and more rights. The Women’s Rights Movement was booming during the Roaring Twenties, but was sadly halted due to the horrific occurrence of the Great Depression.

The Great Depression placed all thoughts and concerns of women’s rights on the backburner in America due to the economic state of the country. Women were highly discouraged from working in the 1930s because it was portrayed as “taking jobs from men” due to the sudden decrease of available jobs. and “some states and the federal government adopted regulations that restricted the employment of spouses” (Papachristou, 213). But, as the United States entered into World War II, women’s rights started to enter back into the mindsets of some individuals. As women were called to duty in the workforce to replace the men who were fighting overseas, Rosie the Riveter made her appearance. Women began to view Rosie as the individual that they aspired to be. She possessed all of the qualities that they had been striving for before the Great Depression, and began to instill again hopes and dreams in women across the nation. The workforce began to alter dramatically in the forties, and “between 1940 and 1945, the female percentage of the U.S. workforce increased from 27 percent to nearly 37 percent” (Goldin). Rosie the Riveter can be held accountable for this exceptional increase in working women during the 1940s, but it was the continuous increase and lifestyle adaptations after this decade that showcased how deeply this character influenced females.

After the men returned home from World War II, numerous women returned home to carry on the role of housewife and fall back into society’s ancient view of a female’s place in our culture. Surprisingly, a majority of women refused to give up their new jobs to the men returning to the workforce. By being exposed to the different aspects of the workforce and having Rosie as a role model, women were filled with a passion to further their roles in society past that of just being a housewife. With depictions of “Rosie the Riveter with a child strapped to her back” occurring throughout magazines, it “captured the dilemma of the working mother” while opening the eyes of females to the idea that they could work in the labor force and still raise their children (Holsinger & Schofield, 146). Rosie became a symbol that put the wheels in motion for the Women’s Rights Movement, which later led to a huge push for females in the workforce. By 2001, “47 percent of U.S. workers were women,” and this number has remained consistent even up to this day (Acemoglu, Autor, & Lyle). Although Rosie is the main factor that played into the changing roles of women in the workforce over time, another aspect to take into account is that of media influence.

Media coverage is a factor that will continue to play a role in society until the end of time. Society was psychologically influenced by what the media produced in the 1940s just as much as it is today in 2012. Media today provides young girls with role models to aspire to be, based on what society portrays as a norm. This idea was still present in the 1940s when Rosie the Riveter was exposed to females. This piece of propaganda is the perfect example of how media appeals to its viewers and is able to influence individuals. Rosie the Riveter was portrayed as a young, rosy-cheeked worker in men’s clothes who represented the strong, independent females in the workforce. Rosie was also the jump start to “a revision in the image of the ideal woman” (Papachristou, 214). This image expressed the idea that women could succeed at any job a man had succeeded at before, and inspired females to “become” Rosie the Riveter by creating a role model that represented patriotism and equal labor laws for women. Women at the time were focused on participating in the workforce because it was deemed the appropriate and patriotic action, rather than working because they believed they had the right to work alongside a man. Rosie the Riveter was the first collaboration of these two ideals, both of which were prevalent in every woman’s life. This image gave women hope that they could lead a life similar to this character and escape the restraints that society had placed upon them. This poster immediately reflected the thoughts of women at the time, therefore allowing the government and media to take advantage of women’s aspirations and manipulate them to their advantage. During the time, “magazines, films, as well as more direct recruitment literature, applauded the capable, active woman who could manage a house, raise children, and work full-time” (Papachristou, 214). The media strategically preyed on the mindsets of women at this time in history to connect with its audience and manipulate them into seeing the temporary cultural norms placed upon society by this certain propaganda. But, the media was not aggressive with its influential coverage, but rather simple because “when attractiveness norm cues are rather subtle, women engage in unconscious processing and may be more susceptible to accepting these ideal images as an appropriate point of comparison” (DAN J. SEGRIST, et al). Females kept repeatedly seeing similar images and phrases that were encouraging to them about being a working member of society, which in turn allowed them to arrive at the conclusion on their own that they should hold a stronger place in society despite the norms believed before. The encouraging media coverage did not halt after the 1940s when women began becoming more complacent in the workforce, but continued on for years after. But, not all coverage was continuously positive for women. A heavy decade of negative media coverage was in the 1970s when “regular media- television, radio, magazines, and books- decided that the women’s movement was news and gave it attention” but, “a great deal of this attention was inaccurate and hostile” (Papachristou, 239). Nevertheless, this negative environment encouraged by males in the media banded women together and made the Women’s Rights Movement even stronger. More and more women’s rights organizations formed, allowing more power in numbers. Whether the coverage was negative or positive, the media has dramatically had an influence on society’s perceptions of the norms and factors into the revolution of the Women’s Rights Movement beginning with the heavy propaganda of Rosie the Riveter utilized in the 1940s.

It can be clearly inferred that Rosie the Riveter sparked the second wave of feminism in the United States. The huge push for women’s rights swung open doors for women across the country. The new arising opportunities allowed women to begin flourishing in the workforce and take on roles that they were never allowed to have before. These cultural changes have allowed women to reach new heights in society and hold positions never dreamed of before, such as Secretary of State or CEOs of corporations. In society today, women have unlimited options when choosing a career path. Now that women have obtained equal rights as men, they have the choice to decide whether they would like to enter the workforce or to be a housewife and stay-at-home mother. It has become socially acceptable in our culture and time period for every woman and man to have this choice, and they are not portrayed any differently to their peers no matter the decision they make. Women such as Hilary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey can be seen as the Rosies of our time since they are present day role models who represent the same values that the original Rosie the Riveter did to the women of the 1940s. These women are symbols of the remarkable roles and lives that women can possess in society today. The culturally changing movement that was ignited by Rosie the Riveter is an example of how change takes time and patience, and that society is forever altering itself to adapt to new thoughts, ideas, and movements that are constantly presenting themselves in the world today. This iconic character, though she may be fictional, is the foundation for the cultural ideas and social norms found in our present day society and an everlasting role model for females across the world.

Works Cited

Acemoglu, Daron, David H. Autor, and David Lyle. “Women, War, and Wages: The Effect of Female Labor Supply on the Wage Structure at Midcentury.” Journal of Political Economy 112. (2004). Print.

DAN J. SEGRIST, et al. "An Intervention for the Negative Influence of Media on Body Esteem." College Student Journal 46.2 (2012): 405-418. SPORTDiscus with Full Text. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1959. Print.

Goldin, C.D. "The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women's Employment." American Economic Review 81.4 (1991): 741-756. Business Source Complete. Web. 26 Nov. 2012.

Holsinger, Paul, and Mary Anna Schofield. Visions of War. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992. Print.

Papachristou, Judith. Women Together: A History in Documents of the Women’s Movement in the United States. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1976. Print.

Yellin, Emily. Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front during World War II. Free Press, New York: 2004.

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