The ‘We Can Do It’ poster, which is currently part of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s political and military collection, was produced by artist J. Howard Miller during World War II for Westinghouse Electric, an electric manufacturing company, and posted inside factories. This poster, along with other advertisements and campaigns, were developed during the second world war to change the perception of wartime women and help them find jobs.
The U.S. entered World War II in 1941 as a result of the attack on Pearl Harbour. Consequently, millions of women entered the workforce for the first time. These roles that were previously occupied by men were now beginning to be filled by women to support war efforts, while their husbands fought at the front lines. Since many women had never worked outside their homes, campaigns and war posters were made to encourage women to enter war production jobs.
The denim-wearing woman in a red polka-dotted bandana rolling up her sleeves became an icon for not only housewives but also convinced existing women workers to work harder. This icon soon came to be recognized as “Rosie The Riveter.” The woman who initially inspired the image was Rosalind P. Walter, an American philanthropist and human rights advocate, who was employed as a riveter at the time and was believed to have broken records for speed on the production line. She is also known to have advocated for equal pay.
Unfortunately, the realities of being a “riveter” were never portrayed in the poster or other such campaigns. Despite equal pay regulations, women were paid significantly lower depending on the region and company. They were also expected to leave their jobs and return back to their domestic roles when the war ended. The employment rate of women in the workforce, which was increasing during the war, significantly declined after the war but not without significant changes in the public and private labor sectors that were soon to follow. Women who were previously occupied in clerical jobs were now able to move to different roles and better-paid jobs.
Rosies greatly impacted women’s rights. As the feminist movement gained momentum around the 1960s leading to the second wave of feminism, the poster presented a new ideology for women. The ‘We’ in the phrase was now widely translated as ‘women’. And so, the ‘Rosie the Riveter’ icon transformed from representing wartime workers to becoming a symbol of women empowerment by significantly impacting the future of women.