Riveting personality – Frank McNally on an all-American (but part-Irish) heroine

The image of Rosie changed attitudes to women and work

I see that in the US, March 21st is now “Rosie the Riveter Day”, in honour of a fictionalised heroine of the second World War.

Symbolising the generation of women pressed into industrial service to fill the places of men who were away fighting, Rosie first emerged as a character in a popular 1942 song.

Thereafter, various real-life models for the part were identified, possession of some version of the name being a pre-requisite.

Leading contenders included an Adeline Rose O’Malley from Wicheta, Kansas, who did indeed work as a riveter, for the local Boeing plant, from January 1942.

According to a 1943 report in the Wichita Eagle, the “little brown-haired, blue-eyed, five-footer” had always been known Adeline in her hometown. But at Boeing, she became Rosie the Riveter, irrevocably, and had to listen to colleagues singing the song at her every day.

If not with the right name, there were plenty of others like her. Company archives include a propaganda video about “the many Rosies of Boeing”, who turned from being “home makers to plane makers” in the early 1940s.

Working 12-hour-shifts, sometimes seven days a week, they increased output from 60 to 362 aircraft a month and so helped win the war.

Boeing’s rivets have been back again in the news recently for less creditable reasons. Last month, a door fell off a 737 Max mid-flight, causing 50 other planes to be temporarily grounded for rivet repair. They could do with a few more Rosies now, clearly.

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The classic artistic depiction of Rosie the Riveter was by the inevitable Norman Rockwell on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post of May 29th, 1943. His real-life model was not a Rosie, but she was another Irish-American, born Mary Louise Doyle in Vermont, later Mary Doyle Keefe by marriage. She was 19 when she posed for the photographs Rockwell always painted from. And her face and red hair certainly inspired the finished artwork.

Her body, however, had been replaced by that of an Amazon woman, with broad shoulders and the muscles of a weight-lifter. Eating a sandwich during her break, Rockwell’s Rosie has a heavy pneumatic rivet gun draped nonchalantly across her lap while she tramples a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf with her right foot.

The pose was based improbably on Michelangelo’s Prophet Isaiah, from the Sistine Chapel ceiling. But Rockwell later saw fit to apologise to his model – a telephone operator in real-life – for the outsized physique he had imposed on her. “I did have to make you into a sort of a giant,” he confessed.

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As I have just now learned, there is even a Rosie the Riveter theme park these days, located in Richmond, California. But it passed me by, or vice versa, when I visited that town only last year, because I was instead making a pilgrimage to another Richmond attraction: the headquarters of the Internet Archive.

A modern equivalent of what Irish monks used to do back in the Dark Ages, copying and preserving books with quills, the Internet Archive is a digital library on a mission to provide nothing less than “universal access to all knowledge”.

The fact that its headquarters is in a former church is a happy accident, it seems, based on the similarity between the Greek Revivalist building and the IA’s logo, itself inspired by the ancient Library of Alexandria. In any case, as a daily columnist, I regularly give thanks to the Archive for making long-out-of-print books, some of which I’d never heard before, available to “borrow”, free, at the touch of a button, complete with word-search facility.

When I paid my respects there in person, it was an unexpected bonus to find that the church had a “congregation” of terra cotta sculptures, created by a Dublin artist with a name well suited to missions spiritual: Nuala Creed.

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Getting back to Rosie, her efforts during the war years changed women’s attitudes to work and so doing presented a challenge to those who hoped for a quick return to the former status quo.

Hence another kind of propaganda that arose during the 1940s, this time reminding the new riveters of their place. As one newsreel lectured:

“The coming of peace will work no unemployment hardships on you. You women have been employed because the armed forces called your husbands, brothers or sons . . . Each serviceman will get his job back when this war is won. And you women and girls will go home, back to being housewives and mothers again, as you promised to do when you came to work for us.”

I found that in a 1982 book called The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter: the story of three million working women during World War II, by Miriam Frank. And yes, it too is in the Internet Archive.

This sort of thing is a life-saver for a hard-pressed columnist.

Whenever it happens, remembering the church, I always mentally genuflect.

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