Westinghouse: The Riveter

More people in the modern era have seen the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” poster, than when it was originally released. Although the image now carries a feminist connotation, Dr. Gwen Sharp, in her review of “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception” conveys that the origin of the image was as an internal Westinghouse propaganda piece. Its beginning, according James Kimble and Lester Olson, was in a commissioned series of images and messages, shared in production facilities to soften labor issues. The 1940’s labor unions struggled with the controversies of communism, discrimination and red-baiting. Kimble and Olson feel that the posters were created to stabilize the mood of the workforce from those disruptive sentiments. They find that the modern understanding of the image is grounded in myth, and that the poster’s purpose wasn’t necessarily to reflect women’s empowerment, or to encourage women into the workforce.
“The image is widely seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and a sign of major gender transformations that occurred during the 1940s. The assumption of current viewers of the image is usually that it was meant to recruit women into the workforce, or to rally women in general — an early example of girl power marketing, if you will — and was widely displayed. But the audience was actually only Westinghouse employees.” (Sharp)
“Events and process are often more important for what is expressed than for what is produced.” (Bolman, p. 253) Although the intention of the image was not for mass dissemination, nor was it produced with the aim of aiding women’s issues, the poster has had a second life in modern times, where it is widely disseminated and perceived as a gender equality icon.
“The company commissioned artists to create posters to be hung in Westinghouse plants for specific periods of time” (Sharp)
“Culture forms the superglue that bonds an organization, unites people, and helps an enterprise accomplish desired ends.” (Bolman, p. 253) Culture, rather, the creation of culture by Westinghouse propaganda, worked, it appears, to allay labor issues during the war effort. It also seems that it reflected something underlying and subconscious in their workforce, perhaps the mindset of equality, and it reinforced the idea—an unintentional, self-fulfilled prophecy—to give the poster it’s modern interpretation.
“Westinghouse workers would have seen it in a different context, as one of a series of posters displayed in the plant, with similar imagery and text. When seen as just one in a series, rather than a unique image, Kimble and Olson argue that the collective “we” in “We can do it!” wouldn’t have been women, but Westinghouse employees, who were used to seeing such statements posted in employee-access-only areas of the plant. By addressing workers as “we,” the pronoun obfuscated sharp controversies within labor over communism, red-baiting, discrimination, and other heartfelt sources of divisiveness.” (Kimble, p. 550)
“Facing uncertainty and ambiguity, people create symbols to resolve confusion, find direction, and anchor hope and faith.” (Bolman, p. 253) The War Committee was faced with the potentiality of extreme labor issues and discontent, at a time when they needed certain output. ‘We’ is a strong pronoun, which could be argued to have an effect on the mind, and individuals’ willingness to participate in a group endeavor. It is commonly used in propaganda campaigns, and its use within the context of the Westinghouse posters, gives validity to the notion that the image was created with propagandist intent, rather benevolence or specific concern to gender. Rosie, in many respects was a cardboard stock image, a “default” warehouse employee in a marketing campaign.
“One of the major functions of corporate war committees was to manage labor and discourage any type of labor disputes that might disrupt production. From this perspective, images of happy workers expressing support for the war effort and/or workers’ abilities served as propaganda that encouraged workers to identify with one another and management as a team; “patriotism could be invoked to circumvent strikes.”(Kimble, p. 562).
“In collective bargaining, labor and management meet and confer to forge divisive standoffs into workable agreements. The process typically pits two sets of interests against each other.” (Bolman, p. 253) To avoid work stoppages during a critical time, the Westinghouse Company attempted to minimize the friction of the competing interests by working a patriotic angle and incorporating teambuilding imagery and language into art.
“Of course, today the “We Can Do It!” poster is seen as a feminist icon, adorning coffee cups, t-shirts, calendars, and refrigerator magnets (I have one). Kimble and Olson don’t explain when and how this shift occurred — when the image went from an obscure piece of corporate war-time propaganda, similar to many others, to a widely-recognized pop cultural image of female empowerment.” (Sharp)
“What is most important is not what happens, but what it means.” (Bolman, p. 253) Ultimately, the image has acquired its modern connotation, which differs from its roots. The current interpretation is noble, and as Dr. Sharp discusses, it is an effective and empowering symbol, that will mean different things to different people. Seventy years into the future, it may have yet more meanings, but it remains a good exercise to understand and gain insight from its origin.

Works Cited:
Bolman, Lee G, and Terrence E. Deal. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2003. Print. Page 253.
Kimble, James and Lester Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie The Riveter.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs. 9.4 (2006): 533-569. Print. <Excerpts: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/01/04/myth-making-and-the-we-can-do-it-poster/>.
Sharp, Gwen. “Myth-Making and the “We Can Do It” Poster.” Society Pages 4 January 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2013. <http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/01/04/myth-making-and-the-we-can-do-it-poster/>.

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