Image by Marija Zaric

THE STORY OF THE LEGENDARY “WE CAN DO IT!” POSTER

1/7/21
Liepa Seskeviciute

For almost 7 years I’ve had the “Rosie the Riveter” poster on my bedroom wall. I praised it as a symbol of strength and would look at it almost crying when cramming for an exam at 3AM. That simple phrase - “We Can Do It!” - is one of the most iconic feminist symbols in history. But where does it really come from? Well, here’s the story of this incredible picture.


The “We Can Do It!” poster is often seen as the feminist symbol left by the World War II era. People tend to see it as a method used to encourage female contribution in the effort of fighting the Axis. However, that isn’t really the case. “Rosie the Riveter” was never supposed to become a national symbol of female workers. Instead, the poster was meant to work as an advertisement campaign for Westinghouse Electric Company, a nuclear power business. The picture of the young woman was intended to have the “Westinghouse employees can do it!” message, yet it was portrayed as “Women can do it” instead.


Interestingly, although the poster did not have nation-wide popularity at first, to this day it symbolises a revolutionary period in terms of female worker prominence. During WW2, the majority of working women had jobs in the light industry or the service sector. Yet as the male enlistment left plenty of jobs untaken, women managed to take care of it. Between 1940 and 1945, the female employment rate rose from 27% to 37%. By 1943 alone, the U.S. aircraft industry workforce was 65% female. Women got employed in the munitions industry and other spheres that had always been labelled as “males’ business”. 


This period was proof for the negligent and ignorant people that women were just as powerful and capable. The entire movement not only helped destroy the stereotypes of women being “weak” and “useless”, but it proved that women could save the economy and contribute to a war victory. It is crucial to note that this was the period where the majority saw women as “housewives belonging in the kitchen”. Hence, the sudden change of roles and major success of these women became a turning point in the feminist history.


Although “Rosie the Riveter” did not gain nation-wide popularity in the 1940s, it sure did later on. Rosie became the symbol of working women and a sign of female strength. The picture was picked up back in the 1980s, yet this time the idea behind it was not about boosting employee morale or encouraging female participation in the workforce. Since the 1980s, as second-wave feminism was gaining more prominence, “We Can Do It!” became the symbol of women empowerment and strength. The poster is used to this day in demonstrations for women’s rights and has become a political symbol, given that many followers of politicians as M. Obama or H. Clinton have used the picture as a form of support for the political campaigns. Hence, the 80 year old poster seems to be getting more and more prominence as years pass.


“Rosie the Riveter” is not just an advertisement campaign or an ordinary hipster symbol. Rather, it is a symbol of female strength and empowerment as well as representation of working women who have spent decades upon decades to fight for equal rights.