On Jan. 23, Naomi Parker Fraley died. She was 96.
Who was Fraley? And why is her passing worth your attention?
Fraley, it must be noted, is the real “Rosie the Riveter.”
And “Rosie” is a genuine American cultural icon.
In an obituary marking her death, Joel Gunter, writing for BBC.com, describes Fraley’s famous image as “ubiquitous,” and her celebrated image has been referenced by such seemingly disparate figures as the students of The Swain School, popular singers Beyonce and Christina Aguilera and a new member of Emmaus Borough Council. Her image has also been rendered by painters such as Norman Rockwell; J. Howard Miller, who created the original “We Can Do It” poster in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor; and Abigail Gray Swartz, who updated Rosie to reflect the timbre of contemporary America for the Feb. 6, 2017, cover of The New Yorker magazine.
For many years, Fraley’s “We Can Do It” spirit was attributed to another.
Geraldine Hoff Doyle, herself a World War II-era factory worker, saw herself in the Rosie the Riveter image and appropriated and promoted Rosie’s identity as her own in the latter 20th century.
It was not until communications researcher professor James Kimble, of Seton Hall University, shed light on the identity of the real Rosie in an academic paper for the journal “Rhetoric and Public Affairs.” Kimble’s research interrogated some of the legends and myths swirling around the poster, and the historical record began to be corrected and set straight.
According to Gunter, Parker Fraley, who kept a clipping of the original news photograph said to inspire Miller among her wartime souvenirs and life memorabilia, had tried to correct history herself but had made little progress.
A poignant anecdote in Gunter’s obituary of Parker Fraley describes Kimble ringing Fraley’s doorbell in California in 2016. He carried a bouquet of flowers, a suggestion from his wife.
Kimble recalled Parker Fraley was “thrilled and excited” to tell the story behind the news photograph credited with leading to Miller’s poster, Gunter wrote.
Parker Fraley joined the war effort soon after the attack on Hawaii and worked in Alameda, Calif., with her sister, Ada. She was 20. Her sister was 18. After the war, the sisters worked as waitresses.
The “We Can Do It” poster resurfaced in the late 20th century, becoming a symbol of empowerment and a touchstone of inspiration reaching into the 21st century.
Parker Fraley’s story, and that of her image, is one of resilience. A news photograph of her at work in a World War II-era defense plant inspired a poster for Westinghouse Corporation, meant to inspire others in a very real military effort and continues to inspire in the all-too-real culture wars of contemporary America.
East Penn Press