Thursday, May 7, 2015

In Passing: Mary Doyle Keefe, Model for Rosie the Riveter


Have you ever heard of Rosie the Riveter?

My guess is most have heard the name, but few remember the context in which she came to American culture. To a previous generation of Americans - my parent's generation - she was a character who symbolized the critical role of women who fought the battle of the home front during World War II.

The character of Rosie evolved from several independent sources. Her last, and perhaps most enduring manifestation was as the Norman Rockwell painting featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post May 29th edition.



In the painting, Rosie sits atop a piling, her rivet gun across her lap and a battered copy of Mein Kampf crushed under her penny loafers. Her overalls are rolled up at the ankles suggesting they were borrowed from the man who previously held the job, now fighting the Axis. Rosie is impossibly well-muscled, but Rockwell maintains her femininity with a glaze of nail polish, lipstick and rouge, while her compact and lace handkerchief peek out from a hip pocket.

The model for Rosie was Rockwell's 19 year old neighbor, Mary Doyle Keefe. Aside from the face and red hair, the petite Ms. Keefe bore no resemblance to the burly Rosie most people remember. And she never used a rivet gun.

Ms. Keefe died last week at the age of 92.


Though Rockwell and Ms. Keefe gave Rosie the Riveter a face, the painting was inspired by a 1942 Four Vagabonds hit song with the same name:

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, 
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter

Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage
That little frail can do more than a 
male will do
Rosie the Riveter

Rosie was propaganda to bolster morale and sell war bonds, but she resonated with the American public because she embodied the commitment, sacrifice and contribution of American women during the war. Between 1940 and 1945, the percentage of women in the US workforce increased from 27% to 37% and by 1945 one in four married women were working. By 1943, 65% of the workers in the US aircraft industry were women. And for most women, work was there way to support the sons, husbands, and boyfriends risking their lives in battle.

Of course when the boys came home, the women went home to their traditional roles where, 25 years later, the home front was their own battlefront.

Ms. Keefe's obituary, which includes a history of the painting can be found here.  And to hear the song by the Four Vagabonds with lyrics, go here.

For more pictures of other Rosie's, please check out the KultureKat Pinterest board:

Follow KultureKat's board Mary Doyle Keefe as Rosie the Riveter on Pinterest.

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