During World War II, more than 12 million men and women served in the United States military. Among them were more than a million Italian-Americans (about 10%) even though some Italian nationals were classified as “enemy aliens” and interned in the United States during the war against Germany and its allies. While millions of men were shipped overseas for combat, millions of American women went to work in the factories, shipyards, aircraft and other war industries.
The image we associate with female patriotism during the war is a poster of Rosie the Riveter wearing a red bandana and flexing her muscle. The poster’s caption is “We Can Do It!” Yet this poster, designed by artist J. Howard Miller, was displayed for only two weeks in Westinghouse Company factories. Very few Americans saw it during the war years. A year earlier in 1942, Rosie the Riveter made her first appearance in a nationally broadcast song. Then, Norman Rockwell’s painting of Rosie the Riveter appeared on the May 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Depicting a muscular woman holding a riveting gun casually desecrating Mein Kampf, this drawing of Rosie was the most well-known wartime image of her.
Who was Rosie the Riveter? While three women lay claim to the title, one stands out from the rest. Rosina Bonavita of Peekskill, New York (her family originally came from Naples) was a riveter at a General Motors plant in Tarrytown. She and her cousin, Jennie Fiorito, teamed up to create an entire wing of a torpedo bomber plane by drilling more than 900 lap holes, fitting skins and driving 3,345 rivets, perfectly, in a record six-hour period. The front page of the New York Sun read: “Rosie and Jennie set Rivet Record.” When another team beat that mark, Rosie partnered with Susan Esposito and set a new speed record. Over the course of the war, nearly 19 million women became “Rosies.”
Of course, there were many men who were uncomfortable with women in jobs traditionally held by men. When the war ended, many industries forced women to relinquish their skilled jobs to returning veterans. The propaganda at the time was quick to depict the women’s work as temporary and suggested that they would return to their roles as homemakers once the war was over. Rosie was largely forgotten during the baby boom years from 1946 to 1964.
By the 1980s, feminists were looking for images from the past that symbolized female empowerment. Even if they had considered Rockwell’s painting, it was under copyright and contained a reference to the war—Mein Kampf. The Westinghouse poster was more generic. In fighting widespread job and wage discrimination, feminists wanted to show that women could perform jobs traditionally held by men and do them just as well, if not better. While “We Can Do It1” was originally about the war, the poster and its slogan are now meant to say that women can do anything they put their minds to.
Rosina Bonavita did not earn any money for any of the Rosie illustrations. She saw her work as a patriotic duty. But she did want women to have equal pay and equal opportunity. Debilitated by osteoporosis, she died on New Year’s Day 1996. Her son, who was a physician, was convinced that her weakened bones were caused by the lead toxins from her early days of riveting.