Feminist Icons: From Rosie the Riveter to Beyoncé

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Rosie the Riveter (wikipedia)

Before she was associated with a stern but feminine face flanked by that fist and iconic red bandana, Rosie the Riveter was a song. Specifically, a 1942 composition by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb praising the working factory woman helping with the war effort that quickly became a hit. 

There's no shortage of real-life "Rosies." Depending on who you ask, she was Rosie Bonavitas manufacturing airplanes in San Diego, or Rosalind Walter, working the night shift in New York, or Rose Will Monroe, building B-24 bombs in Ypsilanti, Michigan. 

But the iconic image that we've all come to see as "Rosie"—that jutting chin, sassy bandana, and no-nonsense flexed arm—was the work of a Pittsburg ad man by the name of J. Howard Miller. He was hired to create posters for the war effort and to inspire a generation of women to get into the work force.

One of those women was Idilia Johnston.  She told her story in an interview preserved in “The Real Rosie the Riveter Project” at NYU’s Tamiment Library.

“One day I was downtown all dressed up in my best clothes and I went into a store front that was hiring for defense plant work and I said I wanted a job at the factory and they said you don't fit in the factory," Idilia Johnstson says in the NYU oral history project. "And I said, 'Why not? That's where the best money is. I want to work in the factory.'"

The daughter of strict Scottish immigrants who settled in Cleveland, Ohio, Johnson chafed at her father's insistence that women belonged at home. When she got a job at the Ohio Crankshaft Company during the war, it allowed her not only to support the war effort but also to become her own person for the first time. 

“Being independent and knowing that I could think for myself—I didn't need my mom and dad to tell me what to do—I became self-sufficient," she said. "I came out of my shell. Before that, I had been meek, mild. If somebody said 'boo,' I jumped. I became a person unto myself and I loved it.”

Miller's image of Rosie posing below the words "We Can Do It" has become a popular modern symbol of feminism, so much so pop icon Beyoncé posted a photo of herself in Rosie-garb this week, and the image made something of a splash. 

But just how flawless of an icon was "Rosie" herself?  And is it time we put aside the propaganda and found some new feminist icons? 

Samhita Mukhopadhyay, former Executive Editor of the website Feministing.com, weighs in.



Samhita Mukhopadhyay

Produced by:

Allie Ferguson and Mythili Rao


T.J. Raphael

Comments [5]

Liz from New Jersey

My Aunt built aircraft during WWII for Hughes Aircraft and later worked for several other companies in the San Diego area. As a 19 year old widow with a young child with a high mechanical aptitude, my aunt needed a good paying job and she discovered a lifelong career building helicopters, military planes, and the first DC-10 passenger jet. When she worked for Boeing, she obtained a patent for one of her tools. My aunt was strong, petite, independent, and traditionally feminine in dress and language who understood and she was proud of her mechical abilities.

Jul. 25 2014 01:51 PM
tom LI

First; "Beyonce lands somewhere in the middle"...? The middle of what? A lot of sexuality and a lot more sexuality? She sells nothing but her sexuality. Her entire stage production is about sexuality. Im amazed that anyone would say otherwise. Her brand is straigh on all about her sexuality and physical attributes.

Tossing off a few "hey girls (grrrls?) be strong, make your own decisions, or get the guy to put a ring on it, so I can give you body" - is hardly a message of real strength for girls and young adult women. (when we all know she didnt have ring on it when she was growing up thru her early and burgeoning life/career) Most especially girls whose physical attributes are not the cultural ideal. Who struggle each day with their weight, etc. And especially those girls who live in cultural enclaves where the men and boys (who learn from the men) around them begin hitting on them when their barely pubescent.

When a female performer sells their talent first and foremost, and avoids the constant gratuitous flaunting of their genetic lottery winnings, then maybe it would be okay to say she lands in the middle. But not Beyonce! Its first and foremost in the Beyonce Brand. Maybe Adele could be seen as someone who sold her talent first, and her femininity second, maybe even third. Melissa McCarthy would be another. Talent up front, their sex/sexuality way later. (and then its because some magazine offered an obscene amount of money for a cover or expose photo-shoot)

Second - could someone PLEASE provide a real working definition of what it means "to own ones sexuality". Everyone I ask, especially women, stutter and fail to come up with anything but some variation of - "I choose who I have sex with." (okay, most people, society at large, never denied that basic human right to any female.) Or, "I decide how much of it I have." (hardly insightful, and I dont deny any person their right to their indulgences)

So can someone help with a real and sensible definition of what it means...?

Jul. 24 2014 04:35 PM
Sue from East Bay, CA

If you're in the San Francisco Bay Area, stop by the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park in Richmond. We have real Rosie's who worked in the Kaiser Shipyards and the nation's oldest National Park Service Ranger, Ms. Betty Reid Soskin.

Great exhibits about the roles of women on the US Homefront during WWII.

Jul. 24 2014 04:02 PM
oscar from ny

99% of the ppl who run the housing market in NY are stactic about the situation over at Palestine, they know that the leaders are bombing estrategically in sectors that will be for the expansion and take over of the land, and the joy of one group vs the hate can be a vail for the real outcome of what's really going on

Jul. 24 2014 02:31 PM
Noel Marandola from Providence

Despite the currents of backlash that still plague the misunderstanding of the great F* word I believe that there are many great iconic women in popular culture! A few that come to mind Beth Ditto of
The band GOSSIP! Her voice is sensational, loud , brutal, vivacious! She has presence and pipes. She heals and inspires people with her music and has made queer rock merge into the pop world. ( Must see her live performance of Aallyah's "tell me I'm that somebody", totally life changing).

Other shout outs go to the sisterhood of flat track roller derby! The fastest growing women's sport in the world right now! Some leaders of the female flat track revolution are namely, Shark Week (Kelly Ryan) of Boston Derby Dames, Allison Trela (Dee Stortion) of Bruised Boutique N.H and Bonnie Thunders & Suzy Hotrod of Gotham Girls Roller Girls!

Thanks for reading! Thanks for the opportunity to share!

Noel Marandola
Aka: trophy knife

Jul. 24 2014 02:19 PM

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