← Back

Rosie the Riveter: Symbol of Women’s Empowerment and Workforce Revolution

March is Women’s History Month. While we celebrate women’s history all year, we do so especially in March, when we highlight the countless women of our neighborhoods who have fought tirelessly and courageously for equality, justice, and opportunity in our nation. It’s the perfect time to remember that we are continuing to build on the legacy of both recognized trailblazers, cultural and political influencers, and unsung heroines who have guided the course of American history and culture and continue to shape its future.

Freelance artist J. Howard Miller was hired by an advertising agency to paint a series of posters for the Westinghouse Company during WW II to recruit women to work. Historians have identified 42 paintings to date, including this one. Library of Congress

During World War II, as men marched off to battlefields, women were needed to step into factories, shipyards, and other traditionally male-dominated industries to fill the labor gap. The image of “Rosie the Riveter” emerged as an allegorical figure during that time, symbolizing the strength, resilience, and empowerment of women entering the workforce, many for the first time. “Rosie the Riveter” became a cultural icon and her lasting impact on women’s rights and equality had a staring role right here in our neighborhoods.

128 East 13th Street, the proverbial home of “Rosie the Riveter”

Few buildings in New York have had as distinguished a history as 128 East 13th Street, which is believed to be the last surviving intact horse and carriage auction mart in New York City. But as motor vehicles and other forms of public transportation became more ubiquitous after WW I, the need for horses and horse auctions declined, and the auction mart ceased functioning in that capacity. The building began to see other uses; for a period of time in the 1940’s it was a women’s assembly line training center, where those women stepping into the wartime workforce came to learn assembly line and inspection work, the reading of blueprints, and various mechanical aspects needed in the defense industries. The building became the proverbial home to “Rosie the Riveter.” 

The artist Frank Stella, one of the 20th century’s most notable and influential artists, owned 128 East 13th and used it as his studio beginning in 1976. When he sold the building in 2005, Village Preservation quickly discovered a plan by developers to demolish the beautiful and historic Beaux-Arts building and replace it with a condominium structure. We waged an immediate campaign and were successful in stopping the wrecking ball at the 11th hour. Ultimately, we fought a 6-year battle for landmark designation of the building, which prominently featured the image of “Rosie the Riveter” to rally the public to save the building. In the end, we — and Rosie — successfully won the campaign to achieve New York City landmark status for the building in 2012.

Village Preservation (then GVSHP) created a hugely successful campaign based upon “Rosie the Riveter,” to save the 128 East 13th Street from the wrecking ball.

Where did “Rosie the Riveter” come from? The name originated from a popular song of the same name written in 1942 by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb which became a national hit. As millions of men enlisted in the military and industries faced a shortage of workers, the government sought to address this challenge by encouraging women to join the workforce. “Rosie the Riveter” became the face of these efforts and was immortalized in posters produced by the U.S. government to recruit women into the workforce. These posters portrayed Rosie as a symbol of patriotism and strength, carrying the message “We Can Do It!” This imagery captured the spirit of women who took on jobs traditionally held by men in industries critical to the war effort, such as manufacturing, shipbuilding, and aviation.

The above image of Rosie the Riveter was painted by Norman Rockwell, who was, incidentally, a long-standing member of the Salmagundi Club.

The emergence of “Rosie the Riveter” marked a significant shift in societal attitudes toward women’s work and gender roles. Women gained newfound confidence and independence through their participation in the workforce. Many experienced financial autonomy for the first time, earning wages that empowered them to support themselves and their families. “Rosie the Riveter” challenged traditional notions of femininity, demonstrating that women were capable of performing physically demanding tasks and could excel in male-dominated industries. In 2017 the U.S. Congress dedicated March 21 as ‘Rosie the Riveter’ Day.

The legacy of “Rosie the Riveter” extends beyond World War II, influencing subsequent generations of women seeking equality and recognition in the workforce. Rosie’s image has been embraced by feminist movements as a symbol of women’s strength, resilience, and solidarity. Her iconic status continues to inspire women to break barriers, pursue their ambitions, and demand equal opportunities in all fields. “Rosie the Riveter” serves as a reminder of the vital contributions women have made throughout history, often in the face of adversity and discrimination.

As we celebrate “Rosie the Riveter’s” legacy, we honor the countless women, many of whom lived and worked right here in our neighborhoods, who defied expectations, shattered stereotypes, and paved the way for progress toward gender equality.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *