Gender and American History since 1890

By Barbara Melosh | Go to book overview

8

GENDERED LABOR

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter and the discourses of wartime womanhood

Melissa Dabakis

With the mobilization of the home front during the Second World War, plucky women in overalls appeared in advertisements, films, and posters. This startling new image cast women in the heroic industrial roles formerly reserved for the manly worker. Orchestrated by the propaganda bureaus of the wartime New Deal, this rapid transformation offers dramatic evidence for the economic and political motivations of gender ideology. Urgently in need of workers to replace men who had gone to war and to propel the expanded industrial production of war, the government turned to women. Recruitment campaigns produced a deluge of words and images touting women’s abilities and exhorting them to join the war effort. But government propaganda also pointedly solicited women’s participation only “for the duration,” shoring up ideologies of domesticity even as women were encouraged to do “men’s” jobs in the work force.

Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, on the cover of Saturday Evening Post (29 May 1943), became one of the most widely circulated representations of the wartime worker. Melissa Dabakis examines the Rockwell figure as it embodied a wartime discourse on working women.Rosie suggests an uneasy and partial endorsement of women’s participation in paid labor, Dabakis argues. Rockwell revises gender conventions in his approving depiction of a woman in work clothing and “male” job, but at the same time he uses the codes of femininity to qualify Rosie’s work identity. Finally, Dabakis takes up the representation of the body as a discourse of class (and race) as well as gender, as she explores the significance of wartime representations of female strength, delicacy, and conventional femininity.

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