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Rosie the Riveter was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
John Shin, 11th Grade
Publicly debuted on the front cover of the May 29, 1943, distribution of The Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter became a pivotal work of art that was used to recruit women for factory jobs in the United States Defense Industry during World War II. Rockwell depicts Rosie as a bulky figure seated in the center of the piece with shameless marks of her labor, such as the stains and grime on her skin and clothing. He illustrates Rosie with other stereotypically masculine features including her overalls and loafers, various organizational pins on her chest, the large rivet gun, and fierce grip on the lunch box. However, there are also contradictions to this masculine narrative: Rosie has nail polish and lipstick, a feminine high nose tip, and styled red curly hair. In addition, according to Sheridan Harvey of The Library of Congress, despite holding the rivet gun, Rosie eats her lunch instead, alluding to her more feminine side as a mother tending to the domestic affair of food. Incorporation of such masculine features with feminine ones demonstrates the new niche of women during the world war as masculinized workers who are simultaneously able to preserve their femininity and aid in the crushing of Adolf Hitler (as represented by her dominantly stepping on Hitler’s Mein Kampf) and the American war effort (as portrayed in the waving American flag in the background).
Though such integration of masculinity and femininity, especially in the mid-20th century, may be perceived as abnormal, many contemporary viewers likened the composition of Rosie the Riveter to Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel ceiling from the Renaissance. Though such an interpretation was not initially common, it nevertheless wove itself into the narrative of the image and became more popular. By depicting Rosie under a biblical lens, the qualities of the strong and powerful prophet Isaiah, a messenger of God, are transposed to Rosie. Further, as touched upon by Dr. Margaret C. Conrads and Dr. Beth Harris, biblical symbols are present in the integration of the halo painted over Rosie’s head. This portrayal labels her as a divine figure, who is able to control the evil serpent of the Garden of Eden as represented with the long and winding rivet gun cord. Jonathan Sawday emphasizes the thematic biblical aspects of the piece as well. In his Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine, he suggests a deeper Renaissance connection: “the Renaissance counterpart of the rivet gun was… the more complex technology of the spinning wheel. A woman, seated at her spinning wheel, was one of the most popular of all forms of genre portraits involving female subjects in late Renaissance art.” Such thorough investigation of Rockwell’s potential motives for pursuing a representation of the iconic Rosie in such a Renaissance-influenced manner offers insight into his balancing of methodical and traditional practices and his extensive artistic knowledge along with the more evident historical context.
Rockwell’s integration of historical context is seamless. With the exodus of men to Europe for the war, there were large numbers of job vacancies, especially in the munitions sector, that required the help of women. In order to promote these jobs and better engage women, who were largely white, middle-class, and married housewives without work experience out of the home, for munitions factory jobs, Rockwell chose to depict the aforementioned masculinized version of Rosie the Riveter. During the war, she was an iconic figure based off the song, “Rosie the Riveter,” exemplifying the ideal working woman assisting the war effort with her contributions at the factory. Patriotic war propaganda like Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter undoubtedly had its desired effect of fostering women’s participation in factory jobs: around six million women entered the workforce for the first time. Even women with jobs, such as those who normally worked at laundromats, left their positions to help the war effort, which led to the understaffing and closing of six hundred laundromats. Such a shift in societal roles not only facilitated American victory, but also decisively marked a shift in the roles that women could or, at the very least, aspire to fulfill within society at large.
The sudden change of female roles within American society during World War II by no means signified the immediate and permanent equality of men and women’s roles in society after the war. Yet, “the number of women working women never again fell to pre-war levels” (Harvey, “Rosie the Riveter,” The Library of Congress), certainly indicating the there was a positive step in the direction toward the recognition of the equality of the sexes, especially in societal roles at home and at different jobs.
Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter also draws upon his influential Freedom from Fear and Freedom from Want illustrations, which were used as wartime propaganda to rally support for the war, primarily in the selling of war bonds and stamps, based on Former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in his 1941 State of the Union Address. Indeed, according to Tony Marcano, a New York Times obituary writer on Rosie Will Monroe, the model for Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, Rosie is also represented as a “quintessential wartime mother.” She has extended beyond her niche at home into a war hero who also actively protects, supports, and vies to crush fear from the nation through her work in the factory. It is this new role that allowed women to want and obtain other societal positions that, before the war, were unavailable to them and helped foster a more modern gender progressive society.
Harvey, Sheridan. “Rosie the Riveter: Real Women Workers in World War II.” The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/journey/rosie-transcript.html.
History.com Staff. “Rosie the Riveter.” History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/rosie-the-riveter.
Knight, Marcy Kennedy. “Rosie the Riveter.” The Saturday Evening Post, July/August 2013. http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2013/07/01/art-entertainment/norman-rockwell-art-entertainment/rosie-the-riveter.html.
Marcano, Tony. “Famed Riveter In War Effort, Rose Monroe Dies at 77.” The New York Times (New York, NY), June 2, 1997. https://nyti.ms/2jFokZq.
“Norman Rockwell, Rosie the Riveter.” Video file. smarthistory. https://smarthistory.org/norman-rockwell-rosie-the-riveter/.
Rockwell, Norman. Rosie the Riveter. 1943. Oil and acrylic on board. Norman Rockwell Family Agency / Norman Rockwell Art Collection Trust. https://www.nrm.org/rosie-the-riveter/.
Sawday, Jonathan. Engines of the Imagination: Renaissance Culture and the Rise of the Machine. Routledge, 2007.