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Rosie’s Legacy—the Red Bandana and Fighting Spirit Live On

Rosie the Riveter is an enduring emblem of empowerment for women everywhere.  When former housewives turned the table on traditional roles, going to work in factories during World War II to take over positions left vacant by military-bound men, they became a vital part of the American war effort.  Operating machinery and manning assembly lines, they were responding to a sense of patriotic duty—little did they know they were making history and inspiring the advancement of women’s economic contributions for generations to come.

Women were encouraged to support the war effort in a number of ways.

Women were encouraged to support the war effort in a number of ways.

Over the last seven decades, Rosie has come to embody the spirit of service and sense of honor that compelled American women to action in a time of crisis.  Women everywhere who respond to the call of service with selflessness participation, who defy expectation, status and stereotype, ensure the continued relevance of the Rosie legacy.  Her bare-armed boldness and red bandana remain a timeless testament to the can-do sentiment and against-all-odds attitude that are cornerstones of the American character.

“Rosie the Riveter” made her debut in a 1942 song of the same name written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb.   The song was said to be inspired by a real-life Rosie, Rosalind P. Walter, a wealthy woman  who worked the night shift in a factory  making fighter planes to support the war effort.

We recently received an inquiry about the history of Rosie and the Ad Council, and sifting through the archives we stumbled upon an interesting discovery:  contrary to popular belief, J. Howard Miller’s classic “We Can Do It” poster featuring a bicep-baring Rosie, which has often been associated with our famous WWII ‘Womanpower Recruitment Campaign’, was in fact not created for The War Advertising Council (now known as the Ad Council).

The poster was actually produced by the Westinghouse Company’s corporate War Production Coordinating Committee.  Though the image came to be known as “Rosie the Riveter,” the poster never had an official name during the war.

Naturally this detection was a bit of a surprise to us, since this iconic iteration of Rosie has been unquestioningly associated with the Ad Council throughout its 70 year history.

Further research revealed that Harold B. Thomas, the first vice chairman of the Ad Council, connected the phrase “Rosie, the Riveter” with the Womanpower campaign in his 1952 document titled “The Background and Beginning of The Advertising Council.”  This is the likely origin of the subsequent association between the Ad Council and the “We Can Do It!” slogan.

Former Ad Council president and CEO Robert Keim wrote in his book, A Time in Advertising’s Camelot — “It (The Advertising Council) had breathed life into the image of ‘Rosie the Riveter’ as the ideal for women to get into war work…”

womanpower campaign

An ad from our Womanpower Recruitment Campaign.

And so the famous poster and the Ad Council became synonymous with the term “Rosie the Riveter,” and Rosie was then-after claimed as an Ad Council construction.

It’s easy to see how the association evolved–the Ad Council did create an iconic campaign with J. Walter Thompson that changed the way women viewed their role in the workforce and contributed to the recruitment and empowerment of over 2 million women who filled vacant positions during a time of instability. While the campaign was initially intended to recruit women for temporary employment, it ultimately sparked a movement by presenting the possibility that women could possess roles and responsibilities beyond the home.

So, while we can no longer claim responsibility for the iconic poster of Rosie, we are proud that the Ad Council campaign helped set the stage that catapulted the spirit of “Rosie the Riveter” into mainstream culture, inspiring women to roll up their sleeves and redefining the role of women in the workforce forever.

Peggy Conlon
Written by Peggy Conlon

Peggy is President and CEO of the Ad Council. During the past 10 years, she has championed the organization’s important mission among various non-profit organizations and government agencies to use the power of PSAs to improve some of the nation’s most pressing issues.

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