Rosie the Riveter: A Profile of the Woman With the Red Bandana

Rosie the Riveter depicted by J. Howard Miller in a 1943 poster
Women at work on bomber
Women at work on bomber, Douglas Aircraft Company, Long Beach, California (1942)

Her face looks familiar to you. You can decipher her message. You may have even heard her name. But how many of you can honestly say you know who Rosie the Riveter was—or how she came to be? The answer may not be as simple as you think.

Rosie the Riveter was a fictional character created by the US Government and whose likeness was featured in many propaganda posters in and around the time of WWII. But Rosie’s journey towards canonization, not to mention becoming one of the most recognizable women of the twentieth century, began interestingly enough, without an image.

It started with a song. The term “Rosie the Riveter” first appeared in a 1942 song of the same name, written by John Jacob Loeb and Redd Evans and performed most popularly by the all-male singing group The Four Vagabonds. In it, Rosie was described as a no-nonsense kind of gal with a heart of gold.

“All day long, whether rain or shine / She’s part of the assembly line / She’s making history working for victory” in the hopes that someday her boyfriend, Charlie, might return home from fighting overseas and marry her. The sentiment was saccharine sweet, but also devastatingly prescient—and effective.

As a result of the song’s popularity, attempts were made to humanize Rosie and to give her a face. Of course, there was her likeness displayed on the cover of the published music (care of Paramount Music Corporation), but she was also realized into existence by artist Norman Rockwell, whose interpretive illustration was featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on May 29, 1943.

Norman Rockwell's 'The Saturday Evening Post' 1943 cover featuring Rosie the Riveter
Norman Rockwell’s ‘The Saturday Evening Post’ 1943 cover featuring Rosie the Riveter

Over the years, claims that the original Rosie had been modeled after real women of the time have resulted in many examples, including Veronica Foster, a Canadian factory worker, and Rose Will Monroe, a Michigan widow. The latter served as a riveter while building B-24 bombers. But alas, the Rosie that we know is simply a creation.

Rockwell’s somewhat unflattering rendering was given a makeover not long after in a commissioned work by the US War Production Coordinating Committee created by artist J. Howard Miller. It is Miller’s markedly glamorous version, the trim figure with the red bandana, that has become the iconic visual we recognize today.

J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster from 1943 depicting Rosie the Riveter with a red bandana
J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster from 1943

Despite her frequent association with the contemporary women’s movement, Rosie the Riveter was not meant to serve as an advocate for change, nor was she a symbolic figure for the advancement of women in 1940s society. Instead, Rosie’s sole purpose was to represent the ideal female worker—strong, robust, forceful—to help fill the temporary industrial labor shortages (as a result of fewer male workers who were experiencing the draft) and the increase in demand for the production of machinery and military ammunition.

Of course, her unconscious association with feminism is not entirely without merit. After all, Rosie is still unequivocally an icon of female power.

The fact that you’re here, interested in learning more about this darling heroine, proves the poster’s effectiveness—nearly 80 years later. Let’s hear it for Rosie.