The Real Rosie

During WWII, we saw women entering the workforce in droves. While our troops were overseas, women in America took up the jobs that had been left by the soldiers. Probably the most iconic image of this movement was that of Rosie the Riveter. The poster with the saying “We Can Do It” has since stood for women’s empowerment in the work place. But Rosie wasn’t simply a marketing strategy. She was a real-life woman, who saw her chance to serve her country when it needed her most. This past Saturday, the real-life Rosie, Naomi Parker Fraley passed away at the age of 96. We honor Naomi not only for her willingness to step up when her country needed her but for what she represented to so many throughout the years since.

Naomi Fern Parker was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 as the third of eight children. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, then 20-year old Naomi and her 18-year old sister, Ada went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. Their job duties at the station included drilling, patching airplane wings and riveting. During her time at the Station, an Acme photographer came in and took several shots of the work going on. One shot was of Naomi, with her hair tied up for safety, hard at work. When it was printed in the newspaper, she clipped it and saved it as her small moment of fame. When the war ended, Naomi worked as a waitress at the Doll House in Palm Springs, California. She would get married and begin a family. She wouldn’t remember that photo again until a fateful day in 2011.

The identity of the real Rosie was for years thought to be of a welder from Michigan by the name of Geraldine Hoff Doyle. Doyle innocently thought that she was the muse for the poster created in 1943 when she saw a photo that was said to have inspired the artist. Because Doyle’s claim seemed legitimate, Fraley’s identity went unrecognized for more than 70 years.  The New York Times, in their article on Fraley’s death, states that the search for the real Rosie was the work of one scholar’s “six-year intellectual treasure hunt.” The scholar, James J. Kimble, told the Omaha World-Herald in 2016 that “It turns out that almost everything we think about Rosie the Riveter is wrong.”[1] When Doyle passed away in 2010, Kimble’s search for the truth about the identity of the real-life Rosie became an obsession, one that led him to the doorstep of Naomi Parker Fraley. But why was it so difficult to identify the woman in the original picture that influenced the poster? According to the Times article, the confusion came about because there is, in fact, more than one Rosie the Riveter in our cultural history. The first Rosie was Rosalind P. Walter, a Long Island woman who was a riveter on Corsair fighter planes. Walter was the inspiration for a wartime song by the name of Rosie the Riveter done by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. In 1943, the second Rosie came from Norman Rockwell,

Norman Rockwell image of Rosie the Riveter.

whose Saturday Evening Post cover on May 29, 1943 “depicts a muscular woman in overalls (the name Rosie can be seen on her lunchbox), with a rivet gun on her lap and “Mein Kampf” crushed gleefully underfoot.”[2] Rockwell’s model is known to have been Mary Doyle Keefe, a Vermont woman who died in 2015. But neither of these Rosie’s became the iconic image that has been so endearing to American culture. It is the Rosie from a wartime industrial poster that has been thrust into the spotlight as a representation of life in WWII America.

Created for Westinghouse Electric Corporation plants in 1943, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller depicted a young woman in a work shirt and a polka dot bandanna. While flexing her arm, she declares “We Can Do It.” The poster was never meant for public consumption. In fact, it was only meant to deter absenteeism and strikes among the employees during the war. For decades, that was essentially all the poster was. After the war, the soldiers returned home and many of the factory jobs were no longer needed. It wasn’t until the 1980’s, when a copy surfaced in the National Archives that Rosie the Riveter, the feminist icon was born. As the poster gained popularity, there was a growing interest in how Miller came up with the image and who his inspiration was. It is believed that Miller’s idea for Rosie came from a widely circulated image from 1942 of a woman, her hair in a polka-dot bandanna, at an industrial lathe.

A 1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley that was the likely inspiration for the Rosie the Riveter poster. Credit Getty Images

Despite the wide circulation of the image, it was never accompanied by a caption, leaving the identity of the woman unknown. In 1984, Geraldine Doyle saw the original photography and believed it resembled her younger self. In 1994, when the Miller poster was featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine, Doyle believed her photo was the inspiration. When Kimble began his investigation, he emphasized that Doyle’s claim was made in good faith. However, he had a problem with the fact that no one seemed to do any further research to verify her claim. Kimble’s research would uncover the following story:

“In 2011, Mrs. Fraley and her sister attended a reunion of female war workers at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historic Park in Richmond, California. There, prominently displayed, was a photo of the woman at the lathe – captioned as Geraldine Doyle. ‘I couldn’t believe it,’ Mrs. Fraley told the Oakland Tribune in 2016. ‘I knew it was actually me in the photo.’ She wrote to the National Park Service, which administers the site. In reply, she received a letter asking for her help in determining the true identity of the woman in the photograph.”[3] During Kimble’s research in order to help Fraley defend her identity, he stumbled upon a copy of the photo from a vintage dealer. The image carried the photographer’s original caption which included the caption, “Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating.” But did the photograph influence Miller’s poster? While Miller left no information on the subject, the physical evidence is pretty good. Miller was working on creating the poster in the summer and fall of 1942, around the time the photo was widely circulating. Kimble’s research also showed that the photo was published in the Pittsburgh Press, Miller’s hometown paper. And then, of course, there was the telltale polka-dot headscarf.

While one could make the argument that even Fraley may not have been the inspiration behind the poster, it may not really matter. The image of Rosie not only symbolizes the modern feminist movement, it symbolizes the group of women who stepped out from their normal daily lives and into a role that many had never even thought about. The women of WWII didn’t just enter the workforce, they took up the crucial task of keeping factories operational while so many men went to the war-front. Doyle’s innocent mistake of misidentifying the original photo is an important statement about women during WWII and what Rosie means for them. Rosie is every woman who served, whether it was overseas or here on the home in many different capacities. Each woman who thought that image was of her was correct in a sense. Rosie is every woman. And the image of Naomi is one that could have been captured a thousand times over. The confusion over who the real Rosie is only furthers the legend. That is because to the women of WWII, they are all Rosie.  Thank you Naomi. 

Fraley is survived by her son Joseph Blankenship; four stepsons, Ernest, Daniel, John, and Michael Fraley; two stepdaughters, Patricia Hood and Ann Fraley; two sisters, Mrs. Loy and Althea Hill; three grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and many step-grandchildren.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/obituaries/naomi-parker-fraley-the-real-rosie-the-riveter-dies-at-96.html

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/obituaries/naomi-parker-fraley-the-real-rosie-the-riveter-dies-at-96.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/22/obituaries/naomi-parker-fraley-the-real-rosie-the-riveter-dies-at-96.html

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