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Everyone Was Wrong About the Real ‘Rosie the Riveter’ for Decades. Here’s How the Mystery Was Solved

6 minute read

When news began to spread that Naomi Parker Fraley had died on Saturday, it prompted an outpouring of admiring obituaries, uniformly lamenting the loss of Rosie the Riveter, and lauding that timeless American icon pictured in the “We Can Do It!” poster. Such remembrances were, and are, a well-deserved tribute to an extraordinary woman.

But it almost didn’t happen that way. Fraley might just as easily have died in relative obscurity, her admirers focused on another claimant to the Rosie title.

The story of Fraley’s discovery is a valuable but cautionary tale. It can tell us much about the 24-hour news cycle, our culture’s need to feed the media beast and what happens to the people behind the stories we consume without questioning.

When I met Fraley on a sunny Northern California day in February 2015, it was hard to believe that — nearly 75 years after the “We Can Do It!” poster appeared in a series of Westinghouse factories in early 1943 — I had finally tracked down the face that so many people now believe was the inspiration for artist J. Howard Miller’s image for the ages.

My search had faced a formidable obstacle. Most people thought they already knew whom that face belong to: a Michigan woman named Geraldine Hoff Doyle. Her proof was a familiar wire service photograph.

Now a regular feature in World War II memorabilia books, the photo depicts a striking woman wearing industrial coveralls—and a bandana adorned with a polka-dot design. Miller is believed to have used that image in creating his now-iconic poster.

Doyle innocently believed she was the woman in the photo, which she first saw in 1984. And it did look like her own photos from the 1940s—so much so that friends marveled at how one of their own had become a minor celebrity. Through some twists and turns, before long, Doyle’s identity as the authentic Rosie the Riveter had become accepted fact. The Michigan Senate and the state’s Women’s History Hall of Fame officially recognized her. When she passed away in 2010, there was a worldwide vigil for the loss of the “We Can Do It!” woman.

I was dubious about those accounts. After a previous round of investigative scholarship on the myths surrounding the “We Can Do It!” image (which I co-authored with Lester C. Olson of the University of Pittsburgh), I wondered if there was any way to prove (or disprove) Doyle’s claim. The only way to tell for sure, of course, was to find that original wire photo in hopes that a long-forgotten caption would provide an identity. And so began a six-year journey.

Eventually, I found and bought an original copy of the photograph. The yellowing caption tag glued to the back provided the final smoking gun. It had been taken at the Alameda Naval Air Station in Oakland, Calif. And, in the unknown photographer’s own words, it said: “Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating, but she knows to keep her nose out of her business.”

It was, pointedly, not Michigan, and not Doyle.

It was an astonishing moment. Who was this forgotten Rosie? Parker’s name was completely unknown to me. I eventually found out that she was alive and well. Now known as Naomi Fraley, she had only recently discovered that her 1942 wire photo (of which she had a captioned copy) was famous. Sadly, she also had found out that her photo was routinely labeled with Doyle’s name. There is even a name for how this happens: the Woozle effect, when an idea is repeated and referenced often enough that it becomes accepted as fact.

So when this new face of Rosie the Riveter chatted with me in 2015, it was with a sense of frustration. Parker was proud of her war service, and equally proud that her image might just have been the basis for the poster that had become a rallying cry of women everywhere. But to see someone else’s name replacing hers—and to know that that replacement was generally accepted as an historical fact—created turmoil inside her that words could not describe.

Fortunately, journalists were more than happy to report on the discovery of a more definitive Rosie. Gradually, Fraley did get to reclaim her identity as the woman in the 1942 photo—and quite possibly the poster itself.

The happy outcome of her story, however, is a sad contrast to the tale of PFC Harold Schultz, only recently found to have been one of the flag-raisers at Iwo Jima. Schultz, too, had been anonymous for years. The difference was that researchers identified him over 20 years after his death. He was never able to claim his role as an iconic figure, nor to serve as an inspiration for admiring youngsters.

Our obliviousness to Schultz during his lifetime—and the eerily similar circumstance that faced Parker until it was almost too late—suggest that our culture’s insatiable thirst for instant celebrities can easily overwhelm the need for careful scrutiny of those whom we would admire. We pay a price, historically, for our haste. Worse, those whom we forget or ignore pay that price in terms of one the cruelest kinds of identity theft.

Thankfully, we came to know Naomi before her final days, allowing her to reclaim both her identity and her value in the workplace that helped win a war. Given her story, it is understandable—and ironic—that she has come to mean so much to so many women.

Professor James J. Kimble is an associate professor of Communication & the Arts at Seton Hall University, and author of the recently published “Rosie’s Secret Identity, or, How to Debunk a Woozle by Walking Backward through the Forest of Visual Rhetoric.” The article appears in Rhetoric and Public Affairs, an academic journal of Michigan State University.

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