Sunday, May 1, 2016

From Kitchens to Factories: Women Empower America in the Wake of War

During World War II, the Westinghouse Company hired J. Howard Miller to produce a poster which would eventually become an iconic part of history; however, the poster he created was actually seen very little during the war. “[Miller’s] image has become synonymous with Rosie the Riveter,” observes Jacquelyn Felix Fisher and E. W. Goodman, “the cultural icon representing the six million women who worked in manufacturing plants during World War II” (Fisher 16). A woman wearing blue coveralls with a red and white polka dot bandana is portrayed in Miller’s poster. Additionally, the text “We Can Do It!” accents the top of the image in bold white letters, as illustrated in figure 1. The use of red, white, and blue suggests an element of patriotism—an important quality during the years of World War II. Furthermore, the poster displays an element of strength in women and America, as the woman portrayed flexes her arm muscles. The war had presented new opportunities for American women and eventually reshaped the landscape between gender roles in the workforce. The use of patriotic colors, inspiring text, and the manner in which the woman is posing in J. Howard Miller’s poster argue for gender equality in the workforce as a fundamental element to the strength and democracy of America.

Fig.1. This poster made by J. Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Company was created to motivate their female factory workers during World War II (Fisher 16).

The woman in J. Howard Miller’s poster conveys an element of masculinity as she poses in a manner that reflects physical strength. Miller’s now vintage print is commonly known as Rosie the Riveter; however, it was not the original purpose of that image to portray Rosie the Riveter. The real Rosie was born from government propaganda campaigns with the goal of recruiting women into the workforce during World War II. It was an effective method used to fill worker shortages in jobs all across the country, particularly in factories and shipyards which were needed to build materials and munitions necessary for the war. As women left their homes, exchanging kitchen aprons for coveralls stained with grease, they became part of the cultural icon known as Rosie the Riveter. In 1943, Norman Rockwell created a painting of a woman with masculine features in his effort to depict Rosie the Riveter, but she was really just a dental hygienist modeling for his painting (History). The Westinghouse Company had actually released J. Howard Miller’s poster a year before Norman Rockwell’s painting in order to motivate their female factory workers. Miller’s poster portrayed a woman who maintained her femininity with makeup and red lipstick, yet she also displayed masculine elements as she held up the sleeve of her blue coveralls—often associated with factory worker’s attire—in order to convey strength by flexing her arm muscles. Melissa A. McEuen with Transylvania University wrote, “Women who stepped into male arenas had to express their femininity to prove that they had not permanently crossed a gender line. If women became masculine, men would become feminine, wartime visual logic indicated” (McEuen). Society demanded that a gap remain between the genders which placed a double standard on women. Motivational posters like Miller’s which projected the strength of women through the use of effective masculine poses helped ensure the resolve necessary for America to survive the war, yet women were still expected to maintain their femininity.

Patriotic duty drove Americans from all walks of life to build industry and military strength to heights never before achieved—something that Miller’s poster eloquently captured with the use of red, white, and blue colors. Miller’s poster represents the strength of women not only called to factory work, but also women who served in the armed forces—both at home and abroad. The deep rooted patriotism shared among Americans was united when it mattered the most, and in response, women were inspired to join the armed forces after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt presented the idea to military leaders. The Women’s Army Corp was instituted by Congress, and eventually 350,000 women served in the armed forces during World War II (History). Although women were not in combat roles, their contribution to the war effort was crucial to victory, the same as women who worked in factories back home. America’s red, white, and blue not only symbolized patriotism, but freedom and democracy—fundamental elements that Miller aimed to capture in his painting.

The text across the top of J. Howard Miller’s poster was strategically chosen to inspire women by assuring them roles in the workforce that previously no woman would ever have an opportunity to work in. Women have constantly faced challenges with equality in the workforce, but it appeared that parity was on the horizon during World War II as propaganda efforts focused heavily on recruiting women. Unfortunately, as World War II came to an end, the government reversed their propaganda strategy encouraging women to return to house work or to previously low-paying roles in the workforce. Gender equality remained an issue of contention after the war; however, the result of women entering broader areas of the workforce ultimately shaped the future of feminist movements. Leila J. Rupp, a historian and professor of feminist studies at the University of California wrote, “For the first time, the working woman dominated the public image. Women were riveting housewives in slacks, not mother, domestic beings, or civilizers” (Rupp). Although J. Howard Miller’s poster was seen very little during the war, it would become the prominent icon for feminist movements which utilized the inspiring text to great effect.

The key elements in J. Howard Miller’s poster, including the projection of strength in women, the inspiring text, and the use of patriotic colors, all worked together to establish new roles for American women in the workforce. America became obsessed with Rosie the Riveter, but in reality she represented all of the women who traded their house work for labor intensive factory jobs. The patriotic duty of Americans also saw women serving in the armed forces for the first time in history. That same patriotism and strength of women portrayed in Miller’s poster was used to inspire later generations of feminists as they fought for women’s rights. Today women have access to more areas in the workforce than ever before; however, gender disparity remains an issue of contention. It is an ironic piece of history that Miller’s poster—originally created for a limited audience—would become more famous for women’s equality than it ever was during World War II. Although Miller’s poster was not intended to represent Rosie the Riveter, it has since become a legendary icon that endures in modern times.

Works Cited

Fisher, Jacquelyn Felix and E. W. Goodman. The Art Institute of Pittsburg. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2009. Print.

History. “Rosie the Riveter.” A&E Networks, 2010. Web. 12 Apr. 2016

McEuen, Melissa A. "Donna B. Knaff. Beyond Rosie The Riveter: Women Of World War II In American Popular Graphic Art." American Historical Review 119.2 (2014): 550-551. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 Apr. 2016.

Rupp, Leila J. Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978. Print.

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