• The New Yorker reimagines Rosie the Riveter as a woman of colour. (Abigail Gray Swartz, The New Yorker)Source: Abigail Gray Swartz, The New Yorker
Rather than celebrating intersectional feminism, the New Yorker's recent reimagining of iconic poster girl 'Rosie the Riveter' as a woman of colour is a slap in the face of African American history, writes Helen Razer.
Helen Razer

31 Jan 2017 - 3:33 PM  UPDATED 31 Jan 2017 - 5:34 PM

Perhaps you are familiar with the image of “Rosie the Riveter”. It’s a popular illustration that feminist groups in the West have used for years as a symbol of women’s strength. The fictional Rosie is now inspiration for hairdos as much as she is for dismantling the cultural supremacy of men. And, this is not, in itself, a bad thing. Who doesn’t want to look fetching while fighting an oppressor?

Personally, I never had much time for Rosie as a young feminist. This wasn’t for any serious intellectual reason; it was more to do with the fact that she looked like she was involved in some unpleasant labour. I have very average muscles and poor fine motor control, so the picture of a woman about to do capable things with her hands wasn’t my idea of an icon.

The longer Rosie stayed in fashion with feminists, the more I began to question just why she was there. Again, this was personal and I kind of resented the idea, being a blind person, that great physical strength was treasured as a symbol for the strength of resistance. Where were the images of vision-impaired weaklings whose strength was only the ability to talk for hours on end?!

I eventually learned that Rosie was first born in the imagination of US war propagandists. With so many men away at war, participation in heavy industries by women was needed. There was a song about Rosie intended to get the gals marching off to factories, and then, the famous American artist Norman Rockwell was commissioned to bring her to life by the Saturday Evening Post.  Such government-endorsed moves encouraged women, chiefly white, from domestic to hard labour.

Oddly, the image we now recognise as Rosie was never known as Rosie in her time. The well-known We Can Do It poster, which now is etched in so many feminist tattoos, wasn’t even particularly well-known, especially when compared to the then famous Rockwell image of a much bigger, more muscular woman. The woman not-formerly-known-as-Rosie was only seen by employees of the company Westinghouse where she functioned to inspire female workers to make as much as they could for the company.

When I found all this out, I felt a bit vindicated in my distrust of Rosie. She was part military propaganda and part the tool of capitalists hoping to extract more sweat, and profit, from its workers.

Of course, this act of backwards cultural appropriation doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If you like big strong Rosie, then like her. Anything that gets chicks all riled about the patriarchy is, more or less, okay by me.

But then, let’s think about the real history of black women in US labour. And think, perhaps, in just being “included” in white women’s history, their real history has been powerfully erased.

But then, I saw (not) Rosie again this week. This latest hostile makeover of her image had already been emptied of so much history, and so I was, once more, filled with irritation.

In a move intended to be good and “inclusive”, the New Yorker has placed the woman who was never Rosie on its cover. But, here’s the modern propagandist twist. To acknowledge the diversity on such marvellous display at the recent women’s marches, they’ve gone ahead and remade Rosie as a black woman.

On the surface, this looks like a caring act of anti-racism. Let’s even forget about Rosie as a tool of the military industrial complex and say that, yes, this seems like a nice thing to do. But then, let’s think about the real history of black women in US labour. And think, perhaps, in just being “included” in white women’s history, their real history has been powerfully erased.

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It was, in many accounts, at around the time of World War II black American women were employed in great number to care for the children of white women. Their labour was cheaper and in this temporary scenario where white women took on the economic role of men, black women were employed to do “women’s work”. Unlike the white female factory workers, they didn’t have the benefit of unions—they’re a thing we used to join in the olden days, look it up—and they certainly weren’t standing shoulder to shoulder with white Rosies, as this New Yorker picture, lovely as it is, so recklessly suggests.

This is a false history. It is a history that suggests that what white women did is what all women did and so, it elevates the importance of white lives and simply neglects the shape of black ones. I get that the New Yorker and the artist it commissioned meant to do good, probably even think they’re on the side of Black Lives Matter. But black lives don’t “matter” if we say they are now, and have always been, exactly like white ones. 

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