In 1940 a wartime industrial poster was displayed in Westinghouse Electric Corporation plant. The poster by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller, shows a young woman, dressed in a blue work shirt and polka-dot bandanna. The woman is flexing her muscles and the caption reads “We Can Do It!” The poster was originally created in order to deter absenteeism and strikes among employees during wartime. It was never really meant for public viewing.
Many men had gone off to fight in the war so woman were being called upon to step in and do their duty for their country. They were suddenly expected to do work that had, up until that point been reserved entirely for men. Women were not generally thought to be strong enough for these types of jobs but in the absence of young men to do them the government had no choice but to recruit women to fill the roles instead. This propaganda campaign was very successful and woman applied in record numbers. More than 300,000 women worked in the U.S. aircraft industry for the first time. In addition to factory and industrial work some 350,000 women also joined the Armed Services.
A photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley in 1942
The poster faded into obscurity until the 1980’s. The woman’s movement was making waves at the time and the poster, which had been rediscovered quickly became a powerful symbol for feminism. The woman in the poster was given the name Rosie the Riveter. The image became hugely popular and was printed on T-shirts, mugs etc. Even though the image was widely familiar the identity of the woman in the poster continued to be something of a mystery. Over the years many different woman claimed to be the iconic “Rosie”. There was even a wartime song of the same name by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. For years a woman called Geraldine Hoff Doyle was believed to be the real Rosie the Riveter. However Dr. Kimble, who is an associate professor of communication and the arts at Seton Hall University in New Jersey wasn’t convinced. So he embarked on a six-year quest to find out her true identity. After many years he discovered that the lathe worker was in fact a woman called Naomi Parker Fraley.
Naomi Fern Parker was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Aug. 26th 1921. After Pearl Harbor, 20-year-old Naomi and her 18 year old sister, Ada, went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda. They worked in the machine shop, their duties included drilling and patching airplane wings.
It was there that the Acme photographer captured Miss Parker. She cut out the photo from the newspaper and had it as a keep sake for decades. After the war, she worked as a waitress and went on to get married and have a family. Years later, Mrs. Fraley encountered the infamous poster and began to think that the woman in the picture looked very like her. In 2011, Fraley and her sister went to a reunion of female war workers. Once again she saw the photo of the woman with the caption – Geraldine Doyle.
At the same time Dr. Kimble was scouring the internet for a captioned copy of the image. Finally in 2015 he found a clue that led him to the original photo and the photographer’s original caption, the date said March 24th 1942 and the location was Alameda. The caption read: “Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating.”
Dr. Kimble quickly located Mrs. Fraley. He visited her in her home and she produced the newspaper photo that she had saved for nearly 70 years. It’s true that the result of this six year journey is not entirely conclusive because the artist has long since passed away and he has no living relatives. There was no proof of the woman’s identity found amongst his personal belongings.
When asked if he was certain of the woman’s identity, Dr Kimble commented “We can rule her in as a good candidate for having inspired the poster,” Mrs Fraley passed away on January 20th 2018 at the age of 96. She is survived by her son, four stepsons and two stepdaughters. I am glad that Naomi got the credit she deserved but to me it’s not so important who the real “Rosie” is. I believe all these woman, Naomi, her sister Ada, Geraldine and the thousands of others are all responsible for inspiring this image. After all “Rosie” is really just a symbol of what woman can achieve when given the opportunity. I like to think that there is a bit of Rosie the Riveter in all of us. She is there to remind us that we are strong and that even when we think we’re beat we can keep going. When the mountain appears too high to climb, she reminds us that we can in fact do it.
“In this age you have been given many great opportunities before you. Go forth and learn as much as you can. You are a treasure and the world waits for you!” Naomi Parker Frayley
This seems like a timely reminder at an appropriate moment with the Women’s march, the Times Up Movement and a referendum on the horizon. So let me take a moment to tip my hat to Naomi Parker Frayley, may she rest in peace, her sister Ada, Geraldine Hoff Doyle and all the other woman who paved the way for the rest of us. After all they really did do it! I am very grateful to them for showing us how. I hope that we can all summon our inner riveter and go out and do magnificent things.