The Progressive and Regressive America: Exploring “Rosie the Riveter”

200.XX.10.8Alfred T. Palmer
American, 1906-1993
Fingers of Destruction, ca. 1942–43
Gelatin silver print
Henry Holmes Smith Archive 

“Rosie the Riveter” is an illustration that many people may recognize. It is the face of a strong and determined fictional young woman during World War II. The image, often displayed in the form of a poster or other portrait, portrays the young woman with a distinct red bandana and with her flexed arm muscles ready for combat. Often times, this image is paired with the phrase “We can do it,” which was aimed to encourage women to earn and care for families as the men were away at war. This was a precursor for the role reversals that women tackled during World War II.

The black and white photo installation, curated by Nan Brewer and a museum intern from the Department of Communication and Culture Maura Campbell-Balkits and on view in the Gallery of the Art of the Western World, shows real life examples of “Rosie.” Including photographs by Howard Liberman, Andreas Feininger, David Bransby, and Alfred T. Palmer, the group of six photographs shows white women and women of color working in industrial settings, creating parachutes, working with armaments, and putting together bombs.

Originally part of a larger selection of photographs that included men working as well, these photos were taken as propaganda for the Office of War Information. The point of the photographs was to mobilize citizens to participate in war efforts and to display national strength to the rest of the world. Brewer and Campbell-Balkits found it to be essential to showcase the unique range of inclusion in the 1940s. This series is particularly notable as the jobs that these women and minorities were undertaking in the photographs were jobs that were usually reserved for white men at this time. However, with the men at war, white and minority women were the ones left to support families and to help supply the military.

Manoower: Negro navy yard worker. 
In a sea of silk, this woman worker is making parachutes for 
America’s paratroopers. She is one of many Negroe employees 
in the aircraft factory of an Eastern navy yard. May 1942
Gelatin silver print
Henry Holmes Smith Archive

After speaking with Brewer and Campbell-Balkits, it is clear that this new era was progressive for the United States. The photographs  in this series were utilized to make America appear modern and powerful, with all hands on deck for the war. According to Brewer, this was potentially a factor in the forward movement of the civil and women’s rights movements and was one of the first times in history that photographs of people of color were circulated in news publications.

However, as progressive as the photographs appear to be, there are always aspects of the truth that remain regressive. Campbell-Balkits said that the photographs do not show the hardships of these groups, only the positives. For example, Brewer said that although women and minorities were doing the same types of factory jobs that white men had done prior to the war, there was still a wage gap that was unequal to what white men had been paid. Additionally, there was the issue of the post-war effect. According to Brewer, the end of the war meant white men returned to their jobs in the factories, leaving women and minorities without these positions once more.

These photographs say more than what women and minorities were doing during World War II; this series also highlights the effects of the war. After developing more capabilities to work for themselves throughout the war, women and minorities strove to further that ability both legally and socially. Indeed, once women and minorities had the knowledge that “they can do it,” the empowering image of “Rosie” and the phrase “We can do it” became a progressive way to think for those who had been told otherwise.




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