Before World War II, 12 million American women worked outside the home, usually in traditionally female and poorly paid occupations, like the service sector. The rest of the female population generally married, raised children and volunteered for social and religious organizations. But when the fighting in Europe and Japan called men away from their jobs, 6 million additional women left the home and supported the war effort by entering the work force.
One woman who answered the call was Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Lansing, Mich. After graduating from high school, the 17-year-old cellist took a job at the American Broach & Machine Co., a metal-processing plant in Ann Arbor. Doyle was wearing a red and white polka-dot bandanna and leaning over a piece of machinery one day when a United Press International photographer took her picture. That image inspired J. Howard Miller, a graphic artist at the U.S. War Production Coordinating Committee, to illustrate a poster featuring a woman wearing a similar bandanna and the motto: “We Can Do It!”.
The woman in the poster became known as a “Rosie the Riveter,” after a 1942 song of the same name, and she helped to encourage women to find jobs and achieve their economic independence. When the war ended and the men returned home, women were generally expected to return to their domestic lives, but Doyle’s famous poster empowered some to buck tradition and take control of their own destiny.
Doyle actually left her factory job shortly after the photograph was taken because a co-worker had badly injured her hands while toiling at the machines. Fearing a similar fate, Doyle took safer jobs, like working at a soda fountain and a book store. She wed Leo Doyle, a young dental school student, and together they raised six children. Over the course of their 66-year marriage, the couple also ran a successful dental practice in Lansing. He died in February 2010.
Doyle didn’t realize her place in women’s history until the early 1980s when she saw an article in Modern Maturity magazine, and connected the UPI photo of her younger self with the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster. The image also appeared on the cover of the Time-Life book “The Patriotic Tide: 1940-1950.” The “We Can Do It!” poster was later used by the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s and appeared on a 33-cent stamp issued in 1999 by the U.S. Postal Service.
Another Michigan woman, Rose Will Monroe, who was featured in a promotional film about women factory workers, was also a well-known “Rosie.” When people would call Doyle a “Rosie the Riveter,” she would always correct them and say she was the ‘We Can Do It!” girl.
Doyle died on Dec. 26 from complications of severe arthritis. She was 86.