Where’s Our Rosie?

For no particular good reason, I was trawling on the Net about Rosie the Riveter, an icon from World War II. If you don’t know about Rosie, you really should check out the Wikipedia article. Another good page on Rosie can be found at the eponymous website. I’ve always liked Rosie because she represented not only American can-do spirit but — perhaps without anyone realizing it at the time — she pointed to a time when the United States would more fully live up to the ideals it claimed to be fighting for. I am always fascinated with what I call the “Gorbachev paradox”, when cynical leaders conscript high-sounding and idealistic words to cloak their pragmatic and sometimes nefarious deeds… and then get hoist up on those same words, forced to live up to them by people who’ve had the gall to actually believe the noble sentiments.

Rosie is much the same. Women were allowed into the wartime workforce for no more noble reason than simple expediency: the factories required bodies and all the men were off at war. At the end of the war, the “natural” order was restored and women were ejected from the workplace. (And, despite Betty Friedan’s myth and mystique, this was done in large part with the willing cooperation of the women, whose own cultural self-image had no place for them in the factories.)

But the damage was done, so to speak. The myth that only men could do the heavy work of the nation was shattered. And though many women sought more “normal” status after the war, they didn’t forget that they, too, had saved democracy. They passed that lesson on to their daughters, who formed the backbone of the first wave of feminism. Rosie was their icon.

But she represented more, too. As the RosieTheRiveter homepage puts it,

During a critical period of the war, Rosie reminded Americans, in a message that still resonates today, of the need for all to do their part in the war effort and to take pride in the work involved.

Although correctly adopted later as a symbol of women’s empowerment, Rosie was also a call to shared sacrifice and effort. And now, as our disastrous war of choice enters its fourth year and as our President orders yet another “surge” to anchor what even he no longer calls the “new way forward”, the ghost of Rosie the Riveter demands that we ask: Where is that sense of shared sacrifice? What have the American people been asked to give up?

Sure, somewhat over three thousand Americans have given their lives, and many more the soundness of their bodies — and their families have shouldered associated burdens. But what about the populace in general? Rather than ask the country to pay for the war, this President rammed through more tax cuts for the ultra-rich — and then cooked the books to make sure that he wasn’t tagged for expanding the deficit beyond any rational ability to comprehend. Rather than sign up for their daddy’s war, his daughters partied through college — and then worldwide. Better to tour Buenos Aires than Baghdad, after all. Rather than being asked to sacrifice a tiny bit of comfort, Americans were encouraged to buy gas-guzzling behemoths; rather than being asked to pitch in, Americans were encouraged to pig out in a blaze of consumerism. Remember: being debt-free means the terrorists win!

It’s no wonder that an ever-more-vanishing tiny fragment of the population supports this war, despite the all-too-true clamor of how disastrous failure is going to be. It’s not that we don’t think winning in Iraq is important. It’s that for four years, we’ve been told it’s someone else’s job to sacrifice, to fight, to try. We’ve been told there’s nothing we can do — and now it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Call it bad karma or just bad PR, but the American public has been trained to helplessness here and can’t really be expected to pull this out of the fire.

Where is our Rosie? Where is our call to shared sacrifice?


5 responses to “Where’s Our Rosie?”

  1. […] Where?s Our Rosie? For no particular good reason, I was trawling on the Net about Rosie the Riveter, an icon from World War II. If you don?t know about Rosie, you really should check out the Wikipedia article. Another good page on Rosie can be found at … […]

  2. I had a Rosie poster in my classroom all five years I taught. Several students asked me who she was. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Some of the assumptions here about the original WWII poster are misguided. Check out the Winter ’06 version of the journal _Rhetoric & Public Affairs_. There is a long article in this issue that skeptically examines the poster’s history. Conclusion: it’s doubtful that it was a “feminist” image during WWII; it wasn’t even famous. We’ve invented a whole array of myths about it, and now we think they’re the truth.

  4. I erred if I gave the impression that Rosie was a feminist icon during WW II, although I expect that people who held ideas we would retrospectively classify as feminist did look on it as an icon. However, the usual interpretation as a “feminist icon” certainly belongs to a later time that adopted it as such.

    On the other, given the contemporaneous moderately popular song of the same name and the fact that anything by Norman Rockwell got prominent cultural status, I would have to take issue with the idea that the poster wasn’t well-known. Of course, the poster most people think of as “Rosie the Riveter” isn’t Norman Rockwell’s poster of that name; it’s a thing called “We Can Do It!”.

  5. Yes, you’re quite right — Rockwell’s image (a magazine cover) was quite well known during the war. The “We Can Do It!” poster, however, was a Westinghouse image by J. Howard Miller. It was one of a series of posters, apparently posted for two weeks each (check out the bottom left corner, the small print) in the factory. The reverse is true now; Rockwell’s is much less known, except to older generations, while Miller’s image has gained a fame it didn’t have during the war. Fun stuff! ๐Ÿ˜‰

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