During WWI and WWII, the emergence of propaganda posters influenced public opinion about joining the war and contributing to the war effort. These posters are eye-catching and easily grab one’s attention. They use bright colours, bold and straightforward texts, and sometimes employed well-known people.
The 1942 poster “We Can Do It” by J. Howard Miller is an image of female strength, perseverance, motivation, and empowerment that was closely connected to feminism in the 1980s. The female in this poster is popularly known as Rosie the Riveter. She is portrayed as a well-muscled female, defiant but proud, with her work-shirt sleeves rolled up and the bold text proclaiming, “We Can Do It!” However, this now-iconic image was initially nameless and not famous at all during WWII; it was hardly known and seen.
Miller was commissioned by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company to create a series of inspirational posters for the company, one of which is the “We Can Do It!” poster (Garber). This poster was to encourage women to take wartime jobs in the defense industries, thus becoming a symbol of female patriotism. Historian Elisabeth Pfeiffer notes that, “The war gave women a chance to pursue careers in sectors that previously were not available to women”(Pfeiffer). Though this was only displayed briefly in Westinghouse factories, this poster became iconic when later rediscovered and featured in the second-wave feminist movement of the 1980s (Pfeiffer).
Today, this poster and its message are significantly utilized, representing feminism and reinforcing female power and independence from men.
As an image, Rosie the Riveter was appropriated many times. One is a cover for Time magazine from 2007 by Eric Bowman, which portrayed a young woman with a long hair wearing a red cap and a blue t-shirt while listening to an iPod. Also, in her forearm, she has a tattoo and a bracelet. She is seen flexing her arm which is similar to Rosie.This cover, have a lot of similarities and differences from the “We Can Do It!” poster. Unlike Rosie, the portrayal in the Time Magazine is more contemporary, which fits on the [21st] generation when it was produced. Rosie the Riveter is used to calling the action during WWII, while the Rosie-inspired is used to support volunteerism, as the cover story said “The Case for National Service.” However, the Rosie-inspired image used similar colours schemes and utilized bold texts to distribute its message.
With its strong message about feminism, Rosie the Riveter became iconic. Aside from magazine cover it is also used poster supporting female election candidate, such as Sarah Palin, and promoting the influence of Michelle Obama. In the poster, Palin’s face is superimposed taking over Rosie the Riveter’s face, while all other elements stayed the same. While in Obama’s, she is also seen flexing her arms and used same colour scheme aside from her clothing. Obama is now moved to the left wearing a purple shirt, but similar style as Rosie and she is seen wearing the Obama pin in her collar. In the bubble, it said “Yes We Can!” instead of the original “We Can Do It!”
“We Can Do It” poster is an iconic design that empowers women and leaves an enormous impact on design history through its elements and straightforward and bold message.
Editor’s Note: It’s fun to see the many versions of this design. Here’s another featuring Limor Fried, the first female electrical engineer to appear on the cover of Wired magazine, April 2011:
Andonovska, Aleksandra. “The real truth behind the iconic “We Can Do It” poster.” The Vintage News, 2 Aug. 2016, www.thevintagenews.com/2016/08/02/much-ado-poster-real-truth-behind-iconic-can-poster-2/.
Garber, Megan. “The Many Faces of Rosie the Riveter.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 24 Apr. 2015, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/04/the-many-faces-of-rosie-the-riveter/391364/.
Pfeiffer, Elisabeth. “Michelle Obama Rosie the Riveter.” Rosie the Riveter Archive, scalar.usc.edu/students/rosie-the-riveter-archive/michelle-obama-rosie-the-riveter-1?path=rosie-the-riveter-original-wwii-poster.
Pfeiffer, Elisabeth. “We Can Do It! Images of Rosie Meant to Inspire Social and Political Movements.” Rosie the Riveter Archive, scalar.usc.edu/students/rosie-the-riveter-archive/rosie-the-riveter-original-wwii-poster?path=clorox-rosie-the-riveter-advertisement.
Richman, Josh. “Is Sarah Palin like ‘Rosie the Riveter?’.” Political Blotter, 11 Sept. 2008, www.ibabuzz.com/politics/2008/09/11/is-sarah-palin-like-rosie-the-riveter/.
“TIME Magazine Cover: The Case for National Service – Sep. 10, 2007.” Time, Time Inc., content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,20070910,00.html.
“We Can Do It!” National Museum of American History, americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_538122.