Embroidering the (Controversial?) Feminist Icon
However you feel about it, the Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” poster is undeniably iconic.
The now-famous poster was created by John Howard Miller and hung in American Westinghouse factories for a very short time during World War 2, when Westinghouse had a US military defence contract. It was intended to boost worker morale.
Morale needed boosting because the workers were being paid substantially less than the men who had filled these roles before the war. On top of that, they were being made to work long hours and didn’t always have access to appropriate safety equipment.
Furthermore, when the war was over it was expected that returning soldiers would get their old jobs back, meaning many working women were pressured into quitting or were fired. For these reasons, some people argue that this image shouldn’t be the feminist icon it has become since its rediscovery in the 80s.
I 100% agree the history is problematic, but basically nothing in WW2 era America was ideal. Racial segregation, Japanese internment camps, lobotomies for the mentally ill, etc. etc. I don’t think we can expect something that comes from that time to reflect our present-day principles.
Whatever the image’s original intended purpose, Rosie the Riveter has become a symbol of feminism and the power of women, and I don’t think we have enough of those. By all means, let’s seek out new, better feminist icons, but I don’t think we need to toss Rosie to the curb.
Poster aside, the real-life Rosies who filled factory positions during the war discovered that they were capable of all sorts of things that had previously been considered a man’s domain—that gender didn’t determine capability. Although many returned to more traditionally feminine jobs or to homemaking after the war, I like to think they passed that discovery on to their daughters, who became second-wave feminists.
Anyway. Over the years this “We Can Do It” image has been recreated in so many different ways, which I think is partly why I like it. So many different people from so many different backgrounds have made the poster their own. So, what’s once more?
I’ve been enamoured with the idea of embroidered photographs for quite a while, since seeing some of Jose Romussi’s work on Pinterest. I should say I’m not a pro embroiderer—I mostly cross stitch, which is nice and easy because there are convenient little squares to stick to. But I gave it a go and I’m reasonably happy with how it turned out.
- Cardstock and a printer (but you could also take a trip to a business near you that prints stuff)
- Red and white embroidery floss
- A needle
- Red/white polka dot washi tape
I downloaded this image from Public Domain Images and made it black and white in Photoshop. Feel free to download and use it for your own Rosie project.
I used a laser printer to print it on my piece of cardstock, but part way through stitching I realized the ink was rubbing off the paper and onto my hands as I worked. I ended up kind of liking the weathered look this gave it, and added to it by rubbing more ink off when I was finished—but if you’re going for a crisper look maybe don’t use a laser printer.
The key to embroidering paper is to poke your holes first. I took my needle and made holes all around the outside of Rosie’s bandana, then along the lines of the knot and two tails, and in a few of the fabric folds, too. I back stitched the outline of the bandana, including the knot and tails, in red. Then I zig-zagged back and forth between the outline holes with my thread. (There are possibly more technical words to describe this..?)
Next, I made needle holes in the white spots of the bandana, usually three per spot but sometimes just one or two, being careful not to get too close to any of the existing holes. In each of these holes I stitched a french knot. To finish it off I stuck red and white polka dot washi tape along the border of the image. Et voila!
I thought it would be awesome to add a tattoo or several to Rosie’s bicep, but didn’t trust myself to get the perspective quite right. (My practice attempt didn’t go very well!)
Let me know what you think of Rosie the Riveter and the “We Can Do It” poster! Does it deserve its icon status, or should we leave it behind?
- Wikipedia: Rosie the Riveter
- The History Channel: Rosie the Riveter
- The Humanities Index: Rosie the Riveter’s Journey from Propaganda to Feminist Icon
- Timeline: Rosie the Riveter is a bogus icon of female empowerment
- The Guardian: Sorry Beyonce, Rosie the Riveter is no feminist icon. Here’s why