A visiting speaker at my school claimed that women in the 1950’s were more powerful than women today. In his view, 50s icons like the dainty Audrey Hepburn had beauty and elegance that put them on a pedestal, elevating them from the crass world of men. While I can understand the admiration or affinity for a certain style associated with the 50s, like Hepburn’s, I found his sort of lament for a time when women had a more “behind-the-scenes power” ignorant. In the 50s, women were culturally repressed as society encouraged them to solely aspire to being a wife and mother. My American image of power would not be the housewife of 1950s advertisements and television, smiling in a kitchen with turkey in hand, but rather Rosie the Riveter.
The Rosie “We Can Do it!” advertisement is significant because it is one of the only iconic American images that overtly celebrates women’s strength. The Rosie advertisement was created in a time when women were gaining independence. After years of the New Deal’s discouragement of women’s participation in industry, when so many men were out of work, job openings in war factories during World War II allowed women to join the workforce and play an active role in the war effort. By the end of the war, six million women made up one third of the workforce, and half of them worked in traditionally male jobs.
As demonstrated by the return to a limiting ideal of feminine domesticity during the decade following WWII and even pervading societal norms in regards to a women’s role, joining the workforce did not end women’s disenfranchisement.
However, the ability to participate in a national effort outside of the domestic sphere and the autonomy to choose to have a job outside of the home were pivotal advances in women’s fight for equality. The unabashed strength and power of Rosie the Riveter not only indirectly embodies the progress of the feminist movement but also the quintessentially American resilience and drive for improvement.