Labor Day is right around the corner, and if you feel disconnected from what the holiday was initially intended to commemorate, you’re not alone. Today, Labor Day for many people is a sign of the end of the summer and a chance for one last barbecue or pool party.
However, the original intention behind Labor Day was to pay tribute to the efforts of American workers. Congress passed an act to make Labor Day a legal holiday, falling on the first Monday of September each year, all the way back in 1894.
During World War II, Rosie the Riveter, one of the most recognizable national symbols, is also arguably the most famous labor icon in U.S. history. In honor of Labor Day, let’s take a look back at Rosie the Riveter’s role in the WWII recruitment campaign—and the legacy of her image today.
The Origin of Rosie the Riveter
In 1942, the U.S. saw an increase in recruitment for war efforts, which led to a shortage of labor in American factories and other homeland positions. Because the men who typically filled those positions were overseas, women were offered factory positions traditionally not open to them. At the time, it was difficult to convince many women to take these “male” roles while also caring for their children and maintaining the home. Rosie the Riveter became part of an advertisement campaign by the U.S. Office of the War to convince women to answer the patriotic call of duty and support the nation by joining the workforce.
The image we know as “Rosie the Riveter” today was created in 1942 by artist J. Howard Miller. This depiction of Rosie features the “We Can Do It!” headline, although when it was first created, it had no association with the name Rosie or the concept of Rosie the Riveter. As far as we know, this image was created as a poster for Westinghouse Electric Corporation to draw more female workers.
In 1943, the concept of Rosie the Riveter began with a popular song by the same name, written by John Jacob Loeb and Redd Evans. Later that year, The Saturday Evening Post featured a cover image by artist Norman Rockwell, depicting Rosie with a flag in the background.
Since then, there’s been some debate over which real-life woman inspired the symbol of Rosie the Riveter. While a few women have been associated with the poster, it’s undeniable that at least one hard-working WWI-era woman led to the likeness of Rosie that we have today.
The labor campaign associated with Rosie the Riveter was successful; between 1940 and 1945, women made up 37 percent of the U.S. workforce (compared to 27 percent previously). One out of every four married women worked outside of the home. These women also set a precedent for the power of women in the workforce and the idea that women brought just as much to the table as their male counterparts.
The Impact of Rosie the Riveter
The origin story for Rosie the Riveter tells a straightforward story about the impact of women in the workforce in WWII and how instrumental the labor movement was in the country’s long-term prosperity. This year, as we celebrate Labor Day, don’t forget to include Rosie the Riveter—and the many real-life women she represented—in your remembrance.