Rosie the Riveter was a tough yet feminine American poster character helping to win World War II by doing a “man’s work” in a factory. Her gorgeous face, well-developed biceps, and insistence that “We Can Do It!” perfectly blended femininity and male resolve. It wasn’t long before the idea of “working like a man” took hold among 1940s women nationwide.
Part of a government propaganda campaign, Rosie the Riveter was designed to encourage women to fill the huge labor gap left by American men off fighting World War II. Jobs always been considered exclusively “male,” like driving trucks, welding, riveting, and working in factories and shipyards, were suddenly wide open, and it was essential to the war effort that women take them on.
Still a certain amount of resistance lingered on the part of both sexes. After all, wasn’t a woman’s place in the home? Someone had to get women to understand that setting aside 1940s gender roles and doing a “man’s work” was not just okay but patriotic. The government’s Rosie the Riveter campaign filled the bill brilliantly. Between 1940 and 1945, some five million U.S. women joined the workforce, many of whom had never held a job before.
But when the war ended in 1945, returning U.S. soldiers wanted “normalcy.” They wanted their former jobs back, and wanted their wives to go back to traditional domestic roles: cleaning, cooking, and caring for the children.
Women who continued to work were pressured to give up their jobs in favor of men and quietly disappear into their homes Some even got an extra push when their employers fired them. Although females continued to make up about one-third of the post-war labor force, they certainly weren’t celebrated or encouraged.
As for Rosie the Riveter, because she was no longer necessary and promoted a message that ran contrary to male sentiments, she quickly faded into oblivion. But the genie she’d let out of the bottle would never completely return. Women had proven they could successfully handle a “man’s work,” and the breakdown of gender stereotypes had begun.
If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my book If My Heart Had Wings: A World War II Love Story — the true story of the life and death of a WWII pilot and the tumultuous life of the young widow he left behind. Available on Amazon!