The problem with the New York Times obit of 'the real' Rosie the Riveter

The “We Can Do It” poster painted by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse during World War II

The New York Times this week published the obituary of Naomi Parker Farley, 96, calling her the “real Rosie the Riveter.”

But there is a problem with that distinction, and the Times obituary itself provides the information to undercut it.

Farley, according to the Times, was the inspiration for the iconic poster by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller of a woman in a polka dot red bandana and blue work shirt, flexing her arm in a show of strength and determination. “We Can Do It” reads a bubble over her head. Nowhere in the poster does the name Rosie appear.

During World War II, the poster appeared only in Westinghouse electrical plants.

Camera icon Public Domain
The “We Can Do It” poster painted by Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller for Westinghouse during World War II

We’ll let the Times take it from the there (emphasis added):

Mr. Miller’s poster was never meant for public display. It was intended only to deter absenteeism and strikes among Westinghouse employees in wartime.

For decades his poster remained all but forgotten. Then, in the early 1980s, a copy came to light — most likely from the National Archives in Washington. It quickly became a feminist symbol, and the name Rosie the Riveter was applied retrospectively to the woman it portrayed.

So the image inspired by a woman whom the Times has named “the real Rosie the Riveter” did not acquire the name until decades later.

A photo of Farley working at a machine did appear in newspapers in 1942.  We accept that this photo of Farley most likely inspired Miller. We will not take that away from her.  But let’s take a look at the other women who have been identified as Rosie.

As the Times notes, during the war, the name Rosie the Riveter was familiar to the public in two forms: a song and a cover of the Philadelphia-based Saturday Evening Post.

First the song. It was written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb and issued by Paramount Music Corp. of New York in early 1943.

Again, let us go to the Times:

The “Rosie” behind that song is well known: Rosalind P. Walter, a Long Island woman who was a riveter on Corsair fighter planes and is now a philanthropist, most notably a benefactor of public television.

Camera icon WNET
Rosalind P. Walter and Stanley Shuman, WNET-TV Trustees, at a 2016 gala for the public television station.

Rosalind. Rosie. Not much of a leap there. And she was indeed a riveter. (Walter, by the way, came from a wealthy family and working on warplanes was her contribution to the war effort. It seems plausible that she would have mingled in the same circles as the songwriters when she was not in her overalls.)

Camera icon Saturday Evening Post
Rosie the Riveter, by Norman Rockwell, as she appeared on the May 29, 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

While the song was being played on radios, Norman Rockwell painted an image of a riveter for the May 29, 1943 cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The name “Rosie” is painted on her lunch box.

The model was Mary Doyle Keefe, a petite 19-year-old phone operator in Vermont to whom Rockwell later apologized for making her appear so muscular. Keefe died in 2015.

So how does a machine worker named Naomi who inspired an image that languished in obscurity for decades become more “real” than a riveter named Rosalind who inspired a song called Rosie the Riveter, or a young woman who modeled for a painting of a riveter named Rosie?

And when Walter dies, will the Times call her the “real Rosie the Riveter,” which she clearly was?

We’ll leave the judgment to you.