The re-birth of an icon: she can do it

WWII "We Can Do It" poster, also known as "Rosie the Riveter" The "We Can Do It" poster is also known as "Rosie the Riveter" - but mistakenly so

Seventy years ago, a poster featuring a young woman flexing her arm muscle was about to appear on the walls of an American factory. Today, she is a worldwide icon of female strength, struggle and empowerment. So why does this image keep coming back into popular culture?

Doe eyes, pouted lips and a cheeky curl protruding from her headscarf: you will probably recognise her.

The character is now known as "Rosie the Riveter". This is actually a misnomer; the original character of Rosie was the the subject of a different illustration, but the two images appear to have been confused.

Our more recognisable Rosie is commonly regarded as a symbol of American women entering the workforce while their men were at war.

In 1942 Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company commissioned the graphic artist J Howard Miller to produce a series of posters, each intended to be displayed for a limited amount of time.

The "We Can Do It" image was to be posted on the walls of one of their Midwest plants from 15-28 February 1943. It was not commissioned by the US Government and was not even intended for general public view. Only a relatively small number of people saw it back then.

Start Quote

This image of a strong, self-possessed woman easily gained currency with those who wished to identify with women's rights and equality”

End Quote Jim Aulich Professor of Visual Culture

After those two weeks, the young woman flexing her muscle was soon forgotten, but not forever. Jim Aulich, professor of visual culture at Manchester Metropolitan University, explains: "Interestingly enough, she was only reborn, so to speak, in the late 1970s and early 80s.

"The poster is simple, populist and without pretension and because of that this image of a strong, self-possessed woman easily gained currency with those who wished to identify with women's rights and equality."

"The image is certainly striking and appropriates the familiar image of Popeye the Sailor Man as he is about to set off to rescue damsels in distress by means of his superhuman strength," adds Prof Aulich.

"The appeal lies in the way the image subverts gender expectations: where one would expect to encounter a male figure, one sees a working woman."

Marketing appeal

As well her forceful pose, her gaze is mesmerising.

The curtain of pin-up eyelashes and make-up are presumably there to feminise her, making her less intimidating. But she looks at you directly, making the slogan even more confronting.

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But Prof Aulich says the long-lasting success of this poster is not only thanks to the charms of its subject.

"The slogan has the same universal applicability as that other recently much reproduced wartime poster 'keep calm and carry on'," he explains, "which, coincidentally also remained unseen during the war itself."

The wording in the speech bubble is powerful and ambiguous at the same time; it does not explain exactly what we can do, or who 'we' are.

Prof Aulich likens the catchy slogan to an advertisement. "Public information posters from as early as the World War I adopted modes of direct address from the practices of advertising," he explains.

But this one is unusual in its use of the first person. The phrase 'we can', Prof Aulich says, implies solidarity.

This has allowed the image to be adapted for a variety of campaigns, a particularly good example being the poster's adaptation for Sarah Palin's vice-presidential campaign in 2008.

Prof Aulich comments: "[Sarah Palin's] face was superimposed onto the original model. And I'm not sure Palin's campaign was particularly focused on women's rights."

This campaign outraged some feminist bloggers, who saw in the Republican campaign as a betrayal and misappropriation of the ideals embodied by their poster girl.

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Mexican interpretation of Rosie the Riveter The painting "Rosita Adelita" went viral almost immediately

More recently, alternative readings of this iconic poster have emerged.

Gwen Sharp, assistant professor of sociology at Nevada State College, argues that its meaning was probably more reactionary than revolutionary.

"Rather than a pro-woman invitation for women to leave their homes and join the workforce," she says, "the poster was part of a company-sponsored propaganda series meant to encourage worker productivity and discourage labour unrest or conflicts with management.

"One aspect of such posters was to make potential conflicts between management and workers, or between different groups of workers, over pay, work hours, supervision, and other workplace issues invisible by presenting workers as patriotic teammates striving together to do their part to ensure victory in the war," adds Dr Sharp.

Moreover, women entering the workforce during World War II did not mean a concrete shift in the traditional roles.

"Many women [who] moved into blue-collar jobs from more traditional women's employment weren't necessarily welcomed with open arms, and were generally pushed out of these jobs once male soldiers returned."

Dr Sharp says that we read this image through a lens influenced by the feminist movement, as it resonates with contemporary ideas of women's liberation.

"When we look at the poster, with a slogan that seems to reflect more recent 'you go, girl!'-type slogans, the 'we' in 'we can do it!' seems to refer to other women," she explains.

"We imagine droves of housewives bravely discarding their aprons and entering the blue-collar workforce to support the war effort."

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Barbara Nessim, Star Girl (1966)
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Crossing cultures

But, even if today's interpretation of the image might be distorted by our experience of the women's right movement, this does not diminish its extraordinary power. It has been used to incite social participation for tens of different causes, from the fight for green jobs to solidarity for those campaigning for political change in Iran.

The poster lends itself not only to marches and demonstrations, but has appeared on the cover of popular magazines, such as Time, The Economist, and Wired, where engineer Limor Fried posed with an electric drill and goggles.

Not surprisingly, this pop icon has crossed cultures. Chicago-based artist Robert Valadez created a Mexican version, named Rosita Adelita, which, as he explains, takes cues from both Mexican and American pop imagery.

The message at the top of the painting, "¡Sí se puede!" translates as an even more enthusiastic version of Barak Obama's "Yes, We Can!"

Rosita is a combination of the "alternative" Rosie the Riveter and La Adelita, the protagonist of a folk song which became popular during the Mexican Revolution. The word "Adelita" has become a synonym of a brave and strong woman in Mexican vernacular.

Mr Valadez also says that, following the publication of a digital version of his painting online, it has gone viral - much like the original WWII poster.

There is also an Indian version and a Slovenian version.

On British soil, the University of Manchester's student union feminist collective is called The Riveters and, as shown in their blog's header, they have adopted the more gender-specific slogan, "yes, she can!"

The Manchester Riveters aim to raise awareness of many issues, from equal pay to violence against women.

The "We Can Do It" girl may have not been a feminist fighting for a radical change in society, but her legacy is still going strong and we are likely to see more incarnations.

The ongoing appeal of this poster shows how the values of the viewer can shape the meaning of a piece of art, and that even what was originally a piece of propaganda can be turned into a positive, empowering message. Happy birthday, can-do girl.

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