Note from Andrea: Today we have our second of two special guest posts, and this week’s author should be familiar: Sarah Van Vugt! You may remember her from her interview in a previous edition of Historians’ Histories. Enjoy!
On Rosies, Past and Present
When it comes to North American symbols of feminism, few outrank Rosie the Riveter in ubiquity and popularity. Although Rosie imagery dates from the Second World War, it’s still extremely potent and recognizable. Today, when you mention Rosie, most people think of artist J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster, designed to hang briefly in Westinghouse factories, and featuring a beautiful woman in a uniform, sleeves rolled up, arm raised, fist clenched. There’s ample evidence that this particular Rosie image is both familiar and constantly being reinvented. For example, on any given day, check out #wecandoit on Instagram, and you’re guaranteed to see many examples of people posing as Rosie, dressed up as Rosie, taking her iconic stance or wearing something that evokes Rosie, like her signature red and white polka dot bandana. There are also many consumer products featuring the image, like this lip balm I recently received as a gift.
In order to understand historical images, it’s critical to consider the context in which they were produced, the audience they were intended for, who would have seen them, and what exactly you, as a viewer, think you’re seeing. In this post, I’ll be analyzing a number of historical images in order to provide context for some modern visual interpretations. A recent and telling reimagining of the “We Can Do It!” Rosie image, Abigail Gray Swartz’s version, titled “The March,” served as the cover of The New Yorker on February 6th 2017. In this rendering, the Rosie figure is a black woman wearing a pink knitted hat, which itself became a controversial symbol of the recent Women’s Marches on January 21st, 2017. Evoking women’s collective power to organize and to make change, as well as the importance of intersectional feminism, the image visually echoes Miller’s version in several ways. Like the original, Swartz’s Rosie boasts a fierce and confident expression and the familiar rolled-up sleeves and raised fist. The New Yorker image also preserves other key visual elements, like the poster’s colours: in particular a vibrant yellow and navy background, Rosie’s blue shirt, and her polished red fingernail.
Swartz’s version has some decidedly new meanings, linked to new American president Donald Trump and widespread concern about the threat his election poses to women’s rights. At the same time, Swartz’s description of her conception of the piece harkens back to popular cultural ideas about women’s experiences during the Second World War in North America. Often, modern reimaginings of Rosie, like Swartz’s, build on the assumption that the war was a time of transformative empowerment for women, and especially for women workers. In truth, the history of this imagery is complex and often misunderstood. It’s important to be mindful when analyzing historical images: often, their meanings change dramatically over time, and we shouldn’t assume that those who viewed the image at the time it was produced understood it the same way we do today.
Understanding Rosie Imagery Through a Second World War Lens
Although Rosie the Riveter-type images from the Second World War are often perceived as representing women’s power to create change, they were not necessarily intended that way or understood that way during the war. Instead, many images of North American women during the war intentionally glamourized, feminized, and sexualized women in order to defuse the potential threat that women, who were temporarily taking on new roles, might pose to the stability of society and the dominance of patriarchy. Beauty contests specifically for munitions workers, like the Miss War Worker contest, strove to prove that women were still beautiful, attractive, and feminine even in their factory uniforms. Some media even linked women’s beauty and their patriotism explicitly, suggesting that women should express patriotism by having beautiful bodies.
Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl and the Beautiful Woman War Worker
One of my favourite examples of this glamorous woman war worker trope is a series of images of Canada’s version of Rosie the Riveter: Veronica Foster, or “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl.” Foster worked at the John Inglis Company in Toronto, which manufactured Bren Guns, and she was featured in a series of promotional images created by the National Film Board’s still photography division in May 1941. Like many American images, including J. Howard Miller’s poster, the Canadian “Bren Gun Girl” photographs emphasize the femininity of women workers’ bodies. Let’s take a closer look at some of these images!
A number of photos in the series highlight women war workers’ uniforms: there are several photographs showing Veronica Foster pinning up her hair and wrapping it in a bandana. In fact, the bandana or kerchief was a key element of the war worker look: it protected women’s hair (both from exposure to chemicals and from getting caught in machinery) as well as allowing creativity and feminine performance. Fabric hair coverings also differentiated women’s uniforms from men’s: men wore hats, if they wore head coverings at all, but not bandanas. Different plants also customized their own unique ways of styling the bandanas, and indeed tying the bandana stylishly was framed as evidence of skill.
In this photo, Foster, already in uniform, ties on her head scarf in the corner of a light-coloured room. Shot from about hip level, lighting in this photo helps to create a dramatic body silhouette. In part because of how the photo is framed, Foster’s hourglass figure is the central focus of the image. She wears trim, dark coveralls and a lighter, fitted, short-sleeved knit top. In fact, there are two photos of Foster from the same angle, at slightly different stages of the scarf-tying process: another image shows her securing her hair with pins, a few pins in her mouth, and her scarf laid across her shoulder. The lighting in this shot is much brighter, even though the room, and Foster’s pose, are the same. So, this photo draws attention to a woman war worker’s figure, which is accentuated through framing and by her fitted uniform.
The next image also foregrounds Foster’s figure: in this shot, she leans over a lathe, both hands visibly manipulating parts of the machine. (Attention to women workers’ hands is a repeated theme in wartime images! Women’s soft hands were a symbol of their femininity.) There is a strong contrast between the hard metal of the machine and the soft lines of the woman worker’s body. Again, because of the way this photograph has been framed and lit, Foster’s bust line is highlighted in the centre of the image.
My favourite image in the series shows very clearly that the foregrounding of Foster’s body, the cheesecake-style photo elements, and the association of glamour and sexiness with the figure of the woman war worker are no coincidence. In this image, Foster sits on a table, one leg crossed over the other. She sits next to a completed Bren gun; one hand, holding a lit cigarette, is draped over the rather phallic-looking gun. Looking admiringly down at the gun, Foster blows out a puff of smoke.
The image series also follows Foster outside of the plant setting, showing her in feminine civilian clothing, looking undeniably chic and beautiful. In one photo, we see Foster’s face in profile: she wears a light-coloured coat, buttoned at the neck and with fur on each shoulder, a sparkling brooch, and a stylish hat, tied on with a dramatic bow of mesh. Capturing her adorned with fashionable clothing and accessories reminds viewers that even though she might work in a factory, her femininity is undiminished. Several photos also depict Foster enjoying a party, drinking beer, and jubilantly dancing the jitterbug with coworkers.
In this photo from the party series, Foster adjusts her stockings. Again, the framing of the image is significant here: shot from below, the photograph zeroes in on Foster’s long, shapely legs. We see her in profile, one high heel-clad foot resting on a dark, shiny, leather chair, the folds of her dark dress swirling around her knees.
Taken as a whole, the image series presents women war workers’ bodies as beautiful and feminine, both in their factory uniforms and outside of the workplace. The Bren Gun Girl series is part of a larger body of wartime images featuring the symbolic figure of the beautiful woman war worker. This imagery emphasized womanly bodies, physical attractiveness, whiteness, middle-class status, and femininity. It constantly reminded North American society of women workers’ difference, making them not just workers like all others, but special, temporary, feminized workers. The legacy of Rosie the Riveter imagery, then, is rather more complicated than the straightforward feminist message many associate with it now.
Rosie and Ronnie’s Historical Context
Today, this combination of beauty and power resonates with the ideology of third-wave feminism: women can choose to present their bodies however they wish, women’s sexualities should be celebrated, and femininity can be powerful. Put another way, third-wave feminism suggests that choosing to express femininity, beauty, and sexuality can allow women to resist oppression and objectification.
Although contemporary feminism finds the combination of femininity, bodily beauty, sexuality, and power to be natural, this was not necessarily the case during the Second World War. In both the United States and in Canada, women did work for wages in greater numbers during the war, and some did work in industries previously closed to many women (although it is worth mentioning that working-class women had been part of the industrial workforce since long before the war, and it was primarily the movement of middle-class women into factory jobs that drew notice). However, in many ways, women’s wartime work didn’t have as much of an “empowering” effect as is often assumed. For example, women’s training for factory positions often involved deskilling (or breaking down a job into basic tasks, and then training workers to accomplish only those tasks), meaning that more skilled workers – like male veterans returning after the war – could easily replace them. Women were welcomed into the wartime workplace only temporarily, and were expected to eventually give up their positions, marry, and have children. Instead of representing a transformation in how women’s bodies were viewed, wartime images of women workers’ bodies constantly foregrounded their beauty, femininity and heterosexuality, emphasizing their gender more than their role as workers and preserving pre-existing ideas about femininity.
Because of its complex history, I am fascinated by the adoption of Rosie the Riveter imagery, and especially the “We Can Do It!” poster, as feminist visual symbols. Miller’s image is so memorable and adaptable that it is easy to understand the continuing appeal. Yet, knowing that neither Miller nor the Westinghouse employees who saw that particular poster during the war would have understood it as feminist in the same way many do today shifts its meanings in important ways. In order to decode the modern meanings of historical images, understanding their historical context is key. Every time I encounter a new permutation (like this one, or this one), I think about the lineage of the image, too. I’m always on the lookout for new iterations, so if you have favourites, I hope you’ll share them in the comments!
Selected Further Reading:
Boris, Eileen. “Desirable Dress: Rosies, Sky Girls, and the Politics of Appearance.” International Labor and Working-Class History 69, (Spring 2006): 123-142.
Keshen, Jeff. Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.
Kimble, James J., and Lester C. Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 533-569.
Knaff, Donna. Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women of World War II in American Popular Graphic Art. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2012. (See especially “Epilogue: ‘These Girls Are Strong—Bind Them Securely!’ World War II Images of Women in the Postwar World.”)
Pierson, Ruth Roach. “They’re Still Women After All”: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990.
Smith, Helen, and Pamela Wakewich. “Trans/forming the Citizen Body in Wartime: National and Local Public Discourse on Women’s Bodies and ‘Body Work’ for Women during World War II.” In Contesting Bodies and Nation in Canadian History, edited by Patrizia Gentile and Jane Nicholas, 305-327. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Stephen, Jennifer. Pick One Intelligent Girl: Employability, Domesticity, and the Gendering of Canada’s Welfare State, 1939-1947. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.
 As Elspeth Brown puts it in her excellent explanation of how to analyze historical images, “We don’t all, in fact, see the same things, nor draw the same meanings from what we see; history, politics and culture inform every aspect of seeing and interpretation.” Elspeth Brown, “Reading the Visual Record,” in Looking for America: An Historical Introduction to the Visual in American Studies, 1900-2000, ed. Ardis Cameron (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 362.
 Françoise Mouly, “Cover Story: Abigail Gray Swartz’s ‘The March’,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/cover-story-2017-02-06.
 Intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, acknowledges that women experience oppression not just based on their gender, but also often based on other identities or categories as well.
 For Swartz’s reaction to the popularity of her cover, and bit of background on how she came up with the idea for the piece, see Beth Brogan, “‘Everything has been insane’ for Maine artist who drew black Rosie the Riveter for The New Yorker,” Bangor Daily News, February 5, 2017, http://bangordailynews.com/2017/02/02/news/midcoast/everything-has-been-insane-for-maine-artist-who-drew-black-rosie-the-riveter-for-the-new-yorker/.
 For an excellent explanation of ways that J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It” image was not necessarily a celebration of female power, see Gwen Sharp, “Myth-Making and the ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster,” Sociological Images (blog), The Society Pages, January 4, 2011, https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/01/04/myth-making-and-the-we-can-do-it-poster/.
 On Miss War Worker, see: Sarah Van Vugt, “Beauty on the Job: Visual Representation, Bodies, and Canada’s Women War Workers, 1939-1945” (PhD diss., University of Victoria, 2016); and Patrizia Gentile, “Queen of the Maple Leaf: A History of Beauty Contests in Twentieth-Century Canada” (PhD diss., Queen’s University, 2006).
 A variety of cosmetics advertisements were published in Canadian magazines with slogans like “Beauty Answers the Bugle” and “Your country needs your loveliness.” See for example: “The Brave Deserve the Fairest,” Dorel, Saturday Night, October 3, 1942, 22; “Make up Minutes Mean Morale,” Yardley, Saturday Night, February 27, 1943, 28; “Beauty Answers the Bugle,” Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Saturday Night, March 6, 1943, 28; “Your Country Needs Your Loveliness,” Vita-Ray, Saturday Night, March 13, 1943, 22.
 For more on Foster and other wartime NFB projects featuring women, see Carol Payne, The Official Picture: The National Film Board of Canada’s Still Photography Division and the Image of Canada, 1941-1971 (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).
 In the interest of brevity, I am focusing on visual elements of femininity and body in this post, but it is equally important to consider how ideas about labour, race, sexuality, age, motherhood, citizenship, and more are reflected in imagery featuring the woman war worker. See the suggested reading list for ideas about where to find out more.
 “Veronica (Ronnie) Foster, employee of the John Inglis Co, and known as “The Bren Gun Girl” ties her head scarf to work at the John Inglis Co. Bren gun plant,” unknown photographer, May 1941, Toronto, LAC, NFB, Still Photography Division fonds, accession no. 1971-271, item: WRM 825.
 “Veronica (Ronnie) Foster, employee of the John Inglis Co, and known as “The Bren Gun Girl” pins up her hair in preparation for wearing her head scarf to work at the John Inglis Co. Bren gun plant,” unknown photographer, May 1941, Toronto, LAC, NFB, Still Photography Division fonds, accession no. 1971-271, item: WRM 824, http://data2.archives.ca/e/e031/e000760457.jpg.
 “Veronica Foster, an employee of John Inglis Co., known as “The Bren Gun Girl”, inspects a lathe at the John Inglis Co. Bren gun plant,” unknown photographer, May 1941, Toronto, LAC, NFB, Still Photography Division fonds, accession no. 1971-271, item: WRM 774.
 “Veronica Foster, an employee of John Inglis Co. Ltd. and known as “The Bren Gun Girl” posing with a finished Bren gun in the John Inglis Co. Ltd. Bren gun plant,” unknown photographer, May 1941, Toronto, LAC, NFB, Still Photography Division fonds, accession no. 1971-271, item: WRM 820.
 “Veronica Foster, an employee of John Inglis Co. Ltd. known as “The Bren Gun Girl”, preparing to go to a party at the Glen Eagle Country Club,” unknown photographer, May 1941, Toronto, LAC, NFB, Still Photography Division fonds, accession no. 1971-271, item: WRM 765.
 “Veronica Foster, an employee of John Inglis Co. Ltd. known as “The Bren Gun Girl”, adjusts her stockings at the Glen Eagle Country Club,” unknown photographer, May 1941, Toronto, LAC, NFB, Still Photography Division fonds, accession no. 1971-271, item: WRM 808.
 A fuller discussion of the ways race, whiteness, and heterosexuality are represented in war worker imagery is sadly beyond the scope of this post, but there is quite a lot to say. For more on Black women’s experiences as war workers in Canada, see Dionne Brand, No Burden to Carry: Narratives of Black Women Working in Ontario 1920s to 1950s (Toronto: Women’s Press, 1991). There is further discussion of heterosexuality in war worker imagery in Van Vugt, “Beauty on the Job”, especially Chapter 5, “Pinup Girls, Pretty Shell Workers, and the Parade of ‘Feminine Pulchritude’: The Woman War Worker as Heterosexual Icon.”
 On Canadian women’s work during and after the war, see Jennifer Stephen, Pick One Intelligent Girl: Employability, Domesticity, and the Gendering of Canada’s Welfare State, 1939-1947 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007).
 For example, the “We” in Miller’s image is Westinghouse employees, not women!
 For more on gender, beauty, labour, and the body during the war, see Van Vugt, “Beauty on the Job”.
Aren’t these images amazing?! I had no idea they even existed until I read this blog post. I think I’m in love. If you’d like to see more of them, you can check out LAC’s Flickr Commons album on Canada and the Second World War, or you can check out the complete Ronnie Foster series as well as other images of Foster, you can click here to see then on LAC’s online collection. I would definitely recommend taking a look, the other images are equally awesome. And big thank you goes out to Sarah Van Vugt for her fantastic blog post! If you enjoyed this blog post, please consider sharing it on Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media platform! And don’t forget to check back on Sunday for your regularly scheduled roundup, I promise! See you then!