Smart: Norman Rockwell’s Birthday and the Birth of a Feminist Icon
February 3rd, 2010 marked the 116th birthday of Norman Rockwell. Google’s clever inclusion of his art among the letters of the search engine’s logo alerted me to the historic date. Oh Google! You went and did it again with your clever intertextuality.
Rockwell rose to artistic fame with his Americana paintings depicting everyday life and its sentiments. On May 29th, 1943 The Saturday Evening Post ran as its cover Rockwell’s painting of “Rosie the Riveter.” Norman Rockwell’s painting was the first widely publicized visual representation of Rosie the Riveter. Rockwell’s Rosie was a commanding figure decked in overalls and a matching work shirt. Sleeves rolled up, Rosie was muscular and ready to work. With an American flag waving as the entire backdrop, Rosie sits on her lunch break balancing her lunch box – her sign of humanity – and her riveting gun – her symbol of power, importance and patriarchically-validated purpose. Rosie was hard at work, her goggles and visor visible, yet pushed up out of her face, as proof. But she is hungry, justifiably so after a job well done; her sandwich is her hard-won right. Our Rosie is a beauty – strong and muscular with painted finger nails, red lipstick, that perfectly tidy mess of red curls and even an angelic halo encircling her head. She is confident as she gazes out into the distance, all the while using as a foot stool a bruised and battered copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Rockwell’s Rosie is undeniably a more potent image than that which has come to culturally represent Rosie the River, J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It.”
It is argued by artistic scholars and many a Rockwell historian that Rosie was one of the works that Americans particularly identified with. Rockwell’s nostalgic scenes and neighbourly characters fell short of what a female Riveter, representing the face of wartime womanhood, could do for the nation. A feminist artistic icon, Rosie the Riveter is worth commending for its efforts to publicize and popularize the mass entrance of women in the workplace and necessarily worth highlighting the many biased limitations of the icon. Full disclosure: I have Miller’s “We Can Do It” Rosie tattooed on a substantial portion of my back. Can I still write this confident not to skew my analytical skills? Mmmmyes.
“Rosie the Riveter” as the all-encompassing term for women’s labor force participation during WWII that it has come to signify, was first introduced in 1942 by a song of the same. Written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, the song was re-recorded by numerous artists and become a sure-fire hit. The song’s Rosie is a martyred assembly line worker, tireless and patriotic as the lyrics suggest: All the day long/ Whether rain or shine/ She’s a part of the assembly line./ She’s making history/Working for victory/Rosie the Riveter.
Although many women took on male dominated trades during WWII, women were expected to return to their reproductive labor positions within the home once men returned from the war. Most women who entered the workplace specifically at wartime opted to do this. Later many women chose to return to their jobs in traditionally gendered work such as clerical or administrative positions – what has since been term pink-collar work.
The fact that the image was based on and closely linked to a real woman, Rose Will Monroe, may have contributed to the icon’s popularity. The numerous service announcements, wartime films and posters she was the star of were used to encourage even the most doubtful of women to go to work for one reason – to support the war effort and their men.
Rosie the Riveter is an imperfect icon. While she (and yes, I know I am personifying an image and therefore imbuing it with all sorts of muddy ethical issues) is undeniably a feminist icon, it is a certain type of feminism that is celebrated while others are marginalized or altogether ignored. Rosie as a white woman stands in for the wartime contributions of other white women. The significant contributions of many others, mainly black women, are not conveyed by the icon. Jobs previously unavailable to black women as a result of their race became acceptable for them when the wartime atmosphere of necessity and urgency took over. No longer considered undesirable by employers, these women played every bit as much a role in the patriotic effort that their white counterparts did. The idea of working was not unheard of before the war. Women have worked and minority status in the form of race, class or sexuality, was usually what informed this behavior regardless of war. While many assume that a sexual division of labor, independent of time and space, is the reason women were primarily relegated to the domestic sphere prior to WWII, they fail to recognize the significance of a cultural division of labor influenced by sex. It was the middle-class white woman who was at home and the middle class white man in the workplace.
Rosie is still largely a propagandistic symbol. Women’s right to widespread opportunity came only at patriarchal capitalism’s allowance and need for this. Women’s labor was exploited for the war effort, with women making a fraction of the wages offered to men doing the same work, and then refused once the war was over.
What else does the Rosie image ignore? A symbol exclusively for American feminism, Rosie ignores the likely double shift wartime woman workers faced. These women were getting it done on the job and at home, or at least trying to, but it is only their paid labor force participation that garners praise. Beyond that, Rosie is a heterosexist image. Used to propel feminine women into traditionally masculine work, the propaganda work of the image is predicated on an obligatory owing relationship to at least one man. We’re doing it all for men so they can get home safely and quickly! Rosie ignores the gender non-normative women who, based on their “deviant” gender performance or sexuality, were denied access to traditionally feminine jobs. These women did the same work as many riveters both before and after the war and their contributions fail to receive any significant status quo attention.
Wrought with many a problem, Rosie is not the ideal of women’s opportunity that she is often made out to be. But herein lies the value of feminist art – facilitation of conversation. What Rosie the Riveter speaks to and what she is (in)capable of conveying are all tied up together in Rockwell’s painting. The image demands, and Rosie sure does get!
Further Reading: Interpretations of a Classic
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