Sarah the Riveter? Not so historically far off

11th September 2008

Sarah the Riveter? Not so historically far off

posted in Feminist Topics |

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.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, September 11th, 2008 at 3:51 pm and is filed under Feminist Topics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

There are currently 15 responses to “Sarah the Riveter? Not so historically far off”

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  1. 1 On September 11th, 2008, Yorke said:


    You’ve given me some brilliant ammunition for the incessant arguments I can’t seem to avoid on this woman and this campaign. Awesome.

    *forwards to all of Yorke’s friends*

  2. 2 On September 11th, 2008, Pezzy said:


  3. 3 On September 11th, 2008, maggiemunkee said:

    because standing up to the big oil companies really involved letting them drill in alaska. oh wait.

  4. 4 On September 11th, 2008, The Bald Soprano said:

    I wrote a paper on this once… the NY Times was having the discussion about what would happen after the war already in January 1942. If I remember correctly, it was something over 40 articles/columns on it that month. And it wasn’t just the media, there were panel-of-expert discussions on it, too.

    Incidentally, there’s a politician here (Munich, Germany) who is using Rosie the Riveter imagery on her campaign posters. She’s not in one of the scary-conservative parties, though (IIRC, she’s a Green Party member, but I’m not sure).

  5. 5 On September 11th, 2008, Bree said:

    I find it ironic that John McCain has accused Obama of being a superstar instead of a politician and compared him to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, when Palin is becoming exactly what he claimed Obama was. She is overshadowing him and is becoming more of a media sensation than a political VP candidate.

    And unfortunately, there are a growing number of women out there who are flocking to her simply because of her gender and her “traditional values,” not realizing some of her traditional values are a threat to their reproductive systems and their religious beliefs. Not to mention their daughters and granddaughters.

  6. 6 On September 11th, 2008, Rachel2 said:

    Amen, Rachel!

    And, Bingo, Bree!

  7. 7 On September 12th, 2008, Mara C said:

    conservative feminism is a joke. i pray american women voting for sarah palin under desillusions of a step forward for feminism will realise the whole picture. VOTE OBAMA !

    Voting should be compulsory in America also ! Less than half the population votes and its so dangerous…

  8. 8 On September 12th, 2008, summer said:

    I caucused for Obama but I like Mccain too and it scares me to see women tearing each other apart like this. I am totally fine with disagreeing with her policies but lets not make this about her being a woman. I will never understand why women(who have enough prejudice to work against) choose to criticize each other for freely choosing their own path. Freedom for women, in my opinion, means we can choose to be conservative or liberal according to our convictions.

  9. 9 On September 12th, 2008, Rachel said:

    am totally fine with disagreeing with her policies but lets not make this about her being a woman.

    This isn’t about her being a woman; it’s about her support of policies that hurt other women. And if anything, the GOP has made more of an issue of Palin’s gender than other groups. They aggressively marketed her in terms of her maternity, yet criticize any attempt to question it as “sexist.” Palin herself announced to the world her teen daughter’s pregnancy, but when questioned on whether she would extend the same freedom of reproductive choice to other women, it’s “sexist.” The governor has less than two years managing one of the least populous states in the Union (considered to be the equivalent of being mayor of Poughkeepsie, N.Y) and yet when she’s questioned about her experience, or lack thereof, it’s “sexist.” In essence, the GOP has created a candidate that is untouchable for fears of being called sexist. This isn’t about Sarah Palin the woman; it’s about Sara Palin the candidate. I’m saddened that you can’t distinguish the criticism between the two.

    And I liked McCain, too. Only, I liked the McCain of 2000 and not the new, Karl-Rovian-inspired McCain of 2008. I admire his service, but I am appalled by his blatantly unethical behavior shown in this campaign. McCain says his positions are motivated by his own personal faith, yet he certainly doesn’t act like the Christian he professes to be.

  10. 10 On September 13th, 2008, Liza said:

    I think that the entire reason Palin is the nominee is sexism.

    She was chosen under the assumption that those of us who voted for Clinton in the primaries did so simply because she’s a woman. As I have said before, having a woman in office would be amazing, but it is only acceptable as a bonus on a candidate that is otherwise fantastic. Clinton’s platform and resume are what made her my first choice, the gender thing was awesome as an additional factor, but not the primary one. In a candidate like Palin, being a woman is not enough to make her deserving of office. And to imply that I, as a Clinton supporter, would vote for someone with views that are the polar opposite of my own (and my candidate’s) simply because we are both in possession of a uterus is insulting. And sexist, because it implies that women don’t really think about who we vote for and we just go for who we like the most or who’s the most like us.

    Her platform is sexist. She’s anti-choice, first and foremost. She’s in favor of abstinence only sex “education.” I’m not going to judge a candidate based on their family, but I would like to point out that her daughter is essentially a gleaming beacon of why her sex ed policies DON’T work – had she been taught how to use a condom or allowed to go on the pill she probably wouldn’t be in her current situation. Also, she cut funding to Alaskan charities that provided safe havens for young pregnant woman and new mothers. So…she refuses to teach people how to avoid pregnancy, won’t allow them to decide for themselves whether or not to stay pregnant, and won’t help them out with their pregnancy? Saying she’s a feminist when her stances are clearly anti-woman is offensive, and if I weren’t so terrified that the repubs will pull this election out of their asses it would be hilarious too.

    Saying you can’t argue against someone because she’s a woman (or accusing you of sexism any time you bring a valid point up against her platform) is sexist in and of itself. Are we as women so fragile that we can’t argue and defend our beliefs for themselves? Are we so weak that we must be sheltered and protected from conflict and debate?

    I’m 100% feminist. I am 100% AGAINST Sarah Palin. This has nothing to do with her gender, it is totally and completely about her platform and her resume – the same reasons I was for Clinton and am currently for Obama.

  11. 11 On September 13th, 2008, Liza said:

    Whoa, sorry for writing such an epic comment.

    And please any errors or discombobulation, it’s only 9:30 and I have a headache because my dog woke me up at 3:30.

  12. 12 On September 13th, 2008, M said:

    I think Palin’s ability to make so many stomp their feet in protest is a terribly good sign of things to come. If she did not have star power, you would just laugh at her and not feel threatened by her. Something to think about.

  13. 13 On September 15th, 2008, Rachel said:

    Hey M – Let me rephrase your comment a bit so as to be more accurate:

    I think Palin’s ability to make so many stomp their feet in protest is an incredibly divisive sign of horrible things to come. If she did not have the potential to become the next leader of the free world, you would just laugh at her and not feel threatened by her.

    Now that’s something to think about.

  14. 14 On September 15th, 2008, Lola said:

    Congratulations, Rachel. Great post! I didn’t know you were one fierce feminist!

  15. 15 On October 9th, 2008, Christina said:

    in reference to the statement of Palin’s daughter
    …had she been taught how to use a condom or allowed to go on the pill she probably wouldn’t be in her current situation.

    If this be the case, and our children have access through
    public education to the facts, access to condoms, etc.
    then why is the teen pregnancy rate what it is, the current u.s teen pregnancy rate seems to contradict this
    statement about Palin’s daughter

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