Rosie the Riveter: the icon that somehow happened

we_can_do_it21It seems like she’s always been there, like there is no more natural symbol of female empowerment. But where did she even come from and how did she end up here?

I can’t remember when I saw Rosie the Riveter for the first time. Was it on a mug in a gift shop? A poster in a movie? A web page? On someone’s shirt? Like every iconic image, Rosie is just.. always there. For a while, I probably didn’t care much about her. Then, I figured she was a pretty cool poster girl (no pun intended) for Girl Power. But then, I learned that this was a wartime poster, meant to sell something as awful as World War II to regular people who probably didn’t want to have anything to do with it. That this was not a poster created by a feminist, but by some dude who may or may not have cared about women’s emancipation but who definitely didn’t make this poster with such designs in mind. No, Rosie was there to tell women that hey, they could do useful work too! Just for the next five years and never again, of course, but someone’s gotta make munitions while the men are out.

The plot thickens even more: recently I found out that this wasn’t even a widely spread poster to motivate all American women to work, it was used for a only a short time in only a few factories to movitate the general workforce to work harder, lest they became ‘unpatriotic’. That’s it. You can’t even say ‘well, you wanted us to work right? Here we are!!!’, it’s just a relic from heaps of war propaganda that might as well have been forgotten.

Except it wasn’t. Someone dug it up and decided that this was the image the women’s movement needed, and that person was right because apparently everybody picked it up and ran with it. And this raises a question: should we use this symbol? Could we not have picked, I don’t know, a first wave poster about voting rights? Should we not feel a little embarrassed to recreate the iconic Riveter pose once we know what it really stands for? This new information doesn’t really make me want to take my own poster down, but it does feel a bit odd.

And yet, maybe there’s more to it; she’s been used as a symbol for feminism for longer than she has been as a symbol for wartime labor. Who even associates her with troublesome war propaganda anymore? And while that propaganda background is a bit uncomfortable, it’s also not the worst propaganda out there, it’s not as if it’s been used to promote the worst of misdeeds back in the day.

So, where does this leave us? We’ve succesfully appropriated a piece of obscure, originally none too feminist WOII paraphernalia: now what. Maybe we should look for a new icon. Something with bold colors, a catchy slogan, a badass attitude.. The problem is, symbols can’t just be created; they have to be found. Someone would have to dig up an image that appeals to us as much as Rosie does, and in the meantime we can let ourselves be inspired by the history of the female workforce during the war.




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