Geraldine Doyle: Death of a Cultural Icon

Friday, 7 January 2011

I have to admit that I'd never heard the name 'Geraldine Doyle' until last week, when a flurry of tweets and links to news stories informed me of her death. Mrs Doyle was an 86-year-old great-grandmother from Lansing, Michigan who died on December 26th and her name might not have been famous but her face certainly was.

That's because Geraldine Doyle was the real-life inspiration for the iconic WWII poster showing a female factory worker alongside the slogan 'We Can Do It'. At the age of 17 she was working as a metal presser at a factory near Ann Arbor when a photographer captured her. This image was later used by artist J Howard Miller to create the 1942 poster which has since become a symbol of the women who, as a result of the war, found themselves doing work which would previously have been considered a 'job for a man'.

During the war the poster was displayed locally as a motivational image and had no particular association with 'Rosie the Riveter', the term used to describe the women who took to previously male-dominated jobs with gusto during the war years. In fact, it was only in later decades, when the poster became associated with the women's rights movement, that the image of Geraldine began to be referred to as 'Rosie'.

It was only around this time, when her image was being used to inspire a new generation of women in the workplace, that Geraldine realised her face had become famous. In 1982 she was looking at a magazine which featured the poster and was surprised to recognise her youthful self.

As her daughter Stephanie told local newspapers last week, Geraldine was a strong and inspirational woman who always quick to point out that she was simply the 'We Can Do It girl' and just one of millions of 'Rosies' who made a vital contribution to the war effort.

Her death has prompted discussion from surviving factory workers who have talked to the press about the inspiration they derived from depictions of Rosie during the war, making them feel empowered and as if they 'could do anything'. For them, the war meant new opportunities and throwing off old constraints that limited their career choices.

Of course, in the years following the war many women who had joined the workforce found they were not treated with the same respect once men returned home and the 1950s were to become a decade feminists today characterize by oppressive attitudes towards women and the choices they could make. However, the example set by the real-life 'Rosies' and the experiences they passed on to their daughters were to impact the lives of women in a major way.

Many of the women who are often seen as having led the charge towards women's rights in education, the workplace, reproduction and marriage were born in the 1940s and are often thought of as 'Rosie's daughters' - indeed you can buy a book of the same name, which tells the stories of some of the women who helped to effect some of the greatest social changes the USA saw in the 20th century.

Today, the poster of Geraldine remains as famous as the symbolic character of Rosie, stuck on thousands of bedroom walls, reproduced on t-shirts and hoodies, on mouse mats and mugs and tote bags. The Rosie the Riveter Trust commemorates the lives of the 'Rosies' and the contribution they made to the war. And a summer camp organisation called Rosie's Girls provides opportunities for middle-school aged girls to "Explore educational and career fields that are considered non-traditional careers for women such as welding, engineering, firefighting, auto technology, electrical wiring, and digital media".

Her story has provided a fascinating insight into the lives of many other women of the 'Greatest Generation' and as someone who wasn't fully aware of all the history behind it, it's been interesting to learn of the evolution of 'Rosie', from the face of the Home Front to feminist icon. Considering she didn't know about her link to the poster for 40 years, it's wonderful that Geraldine's name will now live on.

You can see photographs of real-life 'Rosies' at work from the Library of Congress on Flickr.

This post originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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