Mae Krier has watched members of her World War II generation die over the years, many taking their rich historical stories with them. And she is determined to preserve that history while she is still here to do it.
For more than 30 years, the 94-year-old resident of the Philadelphia area has been promoting awareness of the roughly five million civilian women who served in the defense industry and elsewhere in the commercial sector during the 1940s war years. These working wartime women filled industrial jobs, like fastening rivets on aircraft and welding, vacated by men who left to fight. They built the armor, ammunition and other war supplies that powered the U.S. military to victory in Europe and Asia.
Krier has spent several decades urging leaders to give these women the official recognition they deserve, and to mark an indelible place in the American memory—and now, due in part to her tireless promotion, the nation has bestowed the Congressional Gold Medal to Krier and her cohort, a group better known by its ubiquitous embodiment: Rosie the Riveter.
When women entered the factory floors, there was no going back, says Lisa Kathleen Graddy, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It was a transformative moment in American culture, which had reserved many careers for men.
Rosie is practically synonymous today with the American homefront during WWII. A catchy, popular song from 1942 about a woman working in an aircraft factory gave Rosie her name; the following year, the Saturday Evening Post’s Norman Rockwell illustrated a cover depicting a denim-clad worker with a bandanna on her head. But ever since, and particularly in the past 30 years as the popularity of Rosie has skyrocketed, the true history has been clouded by myth-making.
Take, for instance, the iconic poster of a woman wearing a red-and-white polka dot bandanna, flexing her biceps. With bold determination, she confronts the viewer from beneath the words “We Can Do It!” Created by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller, the poster hung at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company factories for just two weeks as a motivational tool for women workers. As well-known as the poster is today, few people would have seen it at the time. The propaganda poster didn’t recruit workers as one might think; it promoted the management’s message to existing workers to work hard and not slack off. The Rockwell magazine cover would have had greater exposure to people during the 1940s and beyond.
Harry Rubenstein, curator emeritus at the American History Museum, where a copy of the poster now resides, says that the popularity of Miller’s Rosie didn’t really explode until the 1990s, when the nation celebrated the 50th anniversary of World War II. Rosie merchandise with the Miller image started popping up everywhere, and that’s when Rosie became a feminist symbol, he says.
“It’s about individual empowerment—that the role of women can be in any role that they choose, and they have the power to do it,” Rubenstein says.
“The ‘We Can Do It’ poster has far exceeded anything that it was ever set out to be,” says Peter Liebhold, a curator of work and industry at the museum.
Liebhold adds that, counter to the misconception of housewives leaving the home for the factory floor, most of these Rosies were already working, but in lower-paying service jobs like clerking, waitressing and caring for children. Also, though it lacks the famed Rosie factor, women also worked in factories during World War I for the same reason.
“Generally speaking, women during World War II had an opportunity to move from poorly paid jobs into higher-paying factory jobs,” says Liebhold. “It was rare to be paid as much as men, but they were paid notably more than domestic work.”
The entry into jobs that require more skills and pay better wages was especially significant for African-American women, who faced fewer opportunities for work, Liebhold says.
Despite the myths, the arm-flexing woman has become a nostalgic yet still timeless symbol of girl power, Graddy says, and the “We Can Do It” slogan can be translated to so many sentiments and situations: “We can win the war,” for instance, or “I am woman, and I can do this.”
Today, countless types of merchandise, including everything from coffee mugs to keychains and more, showcase Miller’s Rosie image and prove Graddy’s point. One facemask on the market promotes breast-cancer awareness with a multi-toned pink version of the Rosie image, and the slogan “We Can Cure It!”
“It’s all about the power of positive effort and positive thought,” says Graddy. “It was something that inspired women. It’s crediting women who have already joined in the workforce, and inspiring other women to join the workforce.”
For Krier, seeing the formal recognition from Congress carries significant meaning. She grew up in Dawson, North Dakota, during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years. At age 17, she moved to Seattle with a sister and a friend to make B-17 and B-29 warplanes at the Boeing factory with a starting wage of 92 cents per hour. She knows first-hand that women like her worked very hard, and most of them lost their jobs when the men returned from the war.
Krier started lobbying lawmakers for recognition of her fellow Rosies after her children graduated from college in the 1980s, and she realized that their generation didn’t seem to know a whole lot about the story of these women. She began by writing letters to newspapers and television stations. People thanked her for her duty to her country, but that was about it. She wanted more for her sisters in service.
In 2001, a newspaper picked up Krier’s story, and word spread about her life and efforts. Over the years, she met numerous lawmakers of both parties. That led to Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, her state, who introduced the idea of giving the Rosies the Congressional Gold Medal. First awarded to George Washington, the list of recipients has included dozens of notable Americans, including Orville and Wilbur Wright, Marian Anderson and Rosa Parks.
“These ‘Rosie the Riveters’ played an invaluable role in our nation’s efforts during the war,” Casey’s office declared in a press release. They rose to the challenge and set a powerful example—not only for working women, but for all Americans. Millions of women helped support our troops during WWII, whether they worked on assembly lines, addressed the troops’ medical needs, or tended to ships and farms.”
On December 3, President Trump signed the bill issuing the medal. While getting the recognition is fantastic, Krier says she isn’t finished. She hopes to live many more good years and accomplish more for Rosie’s legacy—like hopefully getting a Rosie statue at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (A Rosie the Riveter memorial and national historic site have already been established in the Bay Area.)
Decades from now, Krier hopes she and her fellow Rosies will have gone down in history like other trailblazing females, such as those who fought for the 19th Amendment extending the right to vote to women.
“There’s so few of us left,” Krier says. “We’re still living history. Pretty soon, we’ll just be a page in a history book.”
Graddy says that the Rosies deserve honor and gratitude from Americans, especially while Krier and her fellow Rosies are still alive.
“It’s always nice to see women being honored for their work... and that [Rosie] is taken seriously as more than a cultural poster,” Graddy says. Young women and girls today need to know about Rosie the Riveter, beyond the poster image they might see on a souvenir, she says.
“[Young women] don’t quite understand what these women went through and the sacrifices they made,” Graddy says.