I was still reeling from the realization that Salon’s Rebecca Traistor and I share the same brain when I read via Feministing how GOP conservatives have now co-opted not just the language of feminism, but also one of feminism’s most iconic symbols: Rosie the Riveter. Feministing writer pow3rful insists that “repositioning a traditionally feminist icon like Rosie” is “insulting.” The conservative bastardization of feminism is insulting, and far worse, it threatens an already imperiled post-9/11 feminism, but I’m not so sure Sarah the Riveter is so historically far-fetched. In fact, Rosie the Riveter is a remarkably apt and historically accurate symbolism for both the GOP and its celebrity V.P. pick.
Let’s consider the parallels.
World War II wartime ideology rested on gender roles that determined who went to war and who stayed home. Wartime conditions disrupted these established roles, and many worried these changes might become permanent. As early as 1943, the New York Times Magazine asked: “16,000,000 Women: What Will Happen After?” “Watch Out for the Women,” cautioned a 1944 Saturday Evening Post; “Getting Rid of the Women,” came the Atlantic’s blunt forecast after the European victory. Even women’s magazines joined in, with a 1943 Woman’s Home Companion title demanding, “Give Back the Jobs.” Americans nationwide became concerned over increases – both real and imaginary – in juvenile delinquency amongst unsupervised teenagers as mother went off to work long hours on the factory floor. Others feared that after women left the workforce, she might not easily return to their kitchens – or to the low-status, low-paying jobs they’d had before the war. After all, women had taken men’s jobs. They had also taken over the checkbook and mowed the lawn. Indeed for some families, the most traumatic wartime event was not the departure of the husband to war, but his return to a family and world in which gender relations had inextricably changed.
Government and media propaganda needed to combat these fears because after all, the GIs were fighting for mom and apple pie. Wartime propaganda was tasked with the need to perpetuate the reassuring illusion of the fighting man as defender of a timeless Norman Rockwell America, protector of America’s old-fashioned virtues and of time honored gender roles, which defined husband as breadwinner and wife as homemaker and nurturer of the family. And so, “Rosie the Riveter” – one of the greatest propaganda creations of all time – was borne. Rosie marked the embodiment of the selfless middle-class housewife who didn’t want to leave house and home, but did so out of an altruistic patriotism, and at the war’s end, eagerly left to start a family and resume her station in the kitchen. Government recruiting ads – portraying women war workers as perfectly coifed, red lipsticked beauties, strong and fearless, yet undeniably feminine – urged women to do their part and enter the war industry. But at the same times that the headlines pleaded for women to serve, they also warned women not to take this call too seriously. Rosie was intended to reassure the public that women were still women and after the war, would only naturally resume their posts in the kitchen.
Fast forward nearly 70 years. The 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington D.C. launched a concomitant attack not just on terrorism, but also on feminism. America, made impotent by the attacks, responded with a frenzied need to restore its “traditional” Western manhood, marriage and maternity, led enthusiastically by a swaggering presidential gunslinger. Media headlines declared the death knell of feminism, while predictions abounded that women would respond to 9/11 by abandoning their lonely unfulfilling careers for domestic bliss and the safety of their children from dark-skinned Muslim fiends only a devoted stay-at-home mother could provide. Feminist arguments were denounced unpatriotic and even treasonous, witnessed by a 40 percent drop in federal prosecutions of sex discrimination cases. Female representation in newsrooms, on op-ed pages, and on Sunday morning talk shows noticeably declined, perhaps explaining why The National Review proclaimed Donald Rumsfeld “America’s New Pin-Up,” and the Chicago Tribune insisted “As War Looms, It’s Okay to Let Boys Be Boys Again.” The catastrophic fallout that followed from letting boys be boys has catalyzed the American people to demand change – the real kind.
The McCain campaign needed combat American disillusionment with its cowboy-in-chief and his John Wayne protector politics. Conservative ire prompted the need to select a candidate to perpetuate the illusion of reform, while yet maintaining the party’s red-state appeal as defender of Norman Rockwell America and protector of American family values and time honored gender roles. And so, Sarah Palin – the patronage veep hire – was borne. The self-described “average hockey mom” who “never really set out to be involved in public affairs” because she was too busy “raising kids,” nonetheless rose from the ranks of the PTA to the Alaska statehouse driven by altruistic patriotism. The GOP has aggressively marketed the perfectly coifed, lipsticked former Miss Wasilla and devoted mother of five as undeniably maternal and feminine, but reassures that this gun-toting, mooseburger-eating political neophyte isn’t also afraid to stand up to “big oil companies, and the good-ol’ boys network.” A vote for Palin is a vote for feminism!, exclaims such newly-inspired feminists like Rudy Giuliani and Rick Santorum, while yet warning women that the new GOP feminism isn’t the kind that gives women reproductive freedom, workplace protections and aid to poor mothers. Sarah Palin is intended to reassure the public that women are still women and that even in the case of a GOP victory, a women’s place in politics is still naturally behind that of a man.
The McCain camp was only half-right when it distorted Obama’s innocent lipstick on a pig adage. Palin isn’t the pig; she’s the lipstick on the sexist pig that is the GOP. Palin has aligned herself lock step with a party that, had it gotten its way, would have made the PTA her last stop, not her first. These are people who have inveighed against the reproductive freedom that has allowed Palin to be both a mother and stateswoman. These are the same people who insist a literal translation of creationism be taught in schools from the very Bible that firmly establishes man’s authority over women. These are the people who, for many years, sought to reverse the very gains that led Palin to the Alaska Statehouse. Conservatives are not threatened by the specter of Palin taking on a man’s job, because hers is the brand of faux-feminism that doesn’t threaten antiquated gender roles.
Even as Palin gains favor amongst those who want to bed her and have her babysit their children, there’s cause for hope. Despite the pervasiveness of Rosie propaganda, the overwhelming majority of women did not live up to the ideal. As many as two-thirds of adult females remained full-time homemakers and of those women — especially women whose black skin sharply contrasted the blonde, blue-eyed Anglo-American Rosie the Riveter imagery – who did adopt overalls and man rivet guns, labor outside the home was a little departure from their pre-war lives. We can only hope the gains of feminism has made Sarah the Riveter equally incongruous with contemporary American women.