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s ’ r e ll i M d r a w o H . J

A DESIGN PAPER april 25, 2013 History of design

thursday 8:30

Sara Berkes

s a major American icon, J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” World War II propaganda poster has been reproduced in countless ways and seen countless times by the majority of Americans. Commonly called the “Rosie the Riveter” poster, the design has been repurposed for everything from representing a major feminist movement to being used for business promotions, comic book characters, action figures, t-shirt designs and more. As ubiquitous as the image of a female factory worker flexing her arm and claiming “We Can Do It!” has become in American society, the history of Miller’s poster is much less empowering than the majority believe. There are many questions and unknowns surrounding the why and how a poster originally intended for promoting workplace unity and keeping labourers from striking could become synonymous with female empowerment and with a character not even created until after the poster had been removed from factory walls. However, there are few answers, only theories, about how this reinvented history of the poster overtook its real one. Through examining the poster’s creation, analyzing and comparing its design with similar posters at the time, briefly foraying into the history of Rosie the Riveter and through to the reinvention of “We Can Do It!” as a feminist icon, this essay proves that regardless of its murky history and real or imagined intentions, Miller’s “We Can Do It!” is an example of successful design.

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A Brief



uring World War II, with the majority of American men fighting on the front, women took up the factory jobs these men had previously held. Contrary to the popular notion that these women were “stay at home housewives enthused by patriotism,”1 female factory workers were predominantly single, working class women who “entered the factories primarily to increase their salaries.”2 However, despite the higher wages that drew these women in to factory jobs, they were still forced to accept “less [pay] than men for equal work.”3 Many of them also “faced prejudice [on the factory assembly line], sometimes from men, sometimes from other women of different races.”4 Furthermore, these factories were often plagued by unrest and tensions between workers and management. There were continuous labour strikes before the war and during its beginning. In 1941, for example, “there were more than 4,000 strikes involving more than 2 million workers, approximately 6 percent of the entire labor force of the country.”5 For a government needing to persuade its people that nothing less than diligent, constant work could win the war, the halting of labour and civil unrest caused by these strikes was a major issue to be resolved. Therefore, “to help facilitate a new era of labor-management relations, on March 2, 1942, Donald M. Nelson, director of the War Production Board, called for companies to voluntarily establish joint labor-management committees.”6 These committees “were to focus on increasing production on the shop floor, encouraging suggestions from workers, eliminating rejects, advocating conservation, reducing absenteeism, and promoting tool care and safety.”7 When it came to deciding how to promote these worker values, the committees agreed upon a previously effective medium: the propaganda poster. By having “ready access to the workplace and public spaces outside of the usual

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frame of advertising”, the poster was regarded as a viable “medium of information and persuasion.”8 These posters, depicting happy workers alongside patriotic messages of achievement, unification, and support for the war effort, “served as propaganda meant to persuade workers to identify themselves, management, and [the companies] as a unified team with similar interests and goals.”9 Commonly referred to

as shop posters because they were to appear on the shop floor of the company factories, these posters were often displayed for only a few weeks at a time, rotating imagery and messages constantly in order to keep their workers engaged. J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster, although often thought of as “the “We Can Do It!” J. Howard Miller 1943 product of a government enthusiastic about incorporating women into the war effort,”10 was actually one of these shop posters, displayed for only two weeks during 1943 on a Westinghouse factory floor.


orking as a freelance artist in Pittsburgh, J. Howard Miller “produced at least 42 posters for an advertising agency commissioned by Westinghouse during the war years.”11 These posters were posted in Westinghouse factories in succession—the “We Can Do It!” poster was simply one in a string of many. It was displayed in the Westinghouse factories between February 15 and 29, 1943, and, due to wartime security, was unlikely to have been seen by anyone other than the factory managers and workers during its posting.12

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n g i s e D e Th


he “We Can Do It!” poster depicts a female factory worker, dressed in the uniform of a Westinghouse employee, flexing her right arm whilst lifting her sleeve with her left. She looks directly at the viewer, unsmiling, her makeup immaculate and representing the conventional beauty of the 1940s. Around her head is tied a red polka-dot bandana, but a curl falls out across her forehead, further emphasizing her femininity. Her eyelashes are unnaturally long, almost touching her eyebrows, and her eyes are also unnaturally wide, again emphasizing her beauty and femininity. The one nail of hers we can see is painted and clearly cared for—her hands are not rugged and dirty like a real factory worker’s would have been. She is pictured against a yellow background, the words “We Can Do It!” rendered in white text inside a dark blue speech bubble above her head. Her body extends off the page below her waist; her head slightly covers part of the speech bubble and a minute bit of the “e” of “We,” rendering her a figure larger than life, breaking out of the format of the rectangular poster. Further breaking format, the speech bubble extends out from the poster on three sides, as if the message is so strong it cannot be contained.


he colours of the poster are reflective of American patriotism—the red and white of her bandana, the blue of her uniform—as well as attention grabbing. The yellow background and the blue uniform fight for dominance, being complementary colours. As a warm colour, the yellow naturally comes forward, pushing the woman’s empowering arm motion and beautiful face toward the viewer. The curved line of the woman’s forearm leads the viewer’s eye to the outer

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edge of her fist, which lines up directly with the word “Can,” as if she is gesturing to that positive, empowering word. The blue of the speech bubble is reflected in the blue of her eyes, which also picks up the blue of her uniform, the blue of the Westinghouse logo directly to the right of her waist, and the blue band at the bottom of the poster, unifying the various elements and drawing the eye vertically across the page. The white of the words “We Can Do It!” contrast with the dark blue of the speech bubble, emphasizing the message. In a dirty factory, a poster rendered in such bright colours would be impossible not to look at—it likely would catch workers’ eyes every time they so much as glanced up from their work. Interestingly, Miller’s other factory posters were much more subdued in colour than his “We Can Do It!” poster, especially where female subjects were depicted. This ties in with common wartime propaganda posters depicting women, which generally utilized a “It’s a Tradition With Us, Mister!” J. Howard Miller 1943 painterly-quality background and less contrast in colour and shape than “We Can Do It!” For example, Miller’s poster “It’s a Tradition With Us, Mister!” depicts a woman in the same uniform as his “We Can Do It!” factory woman, complete with red bandana and forehead curls, but the red is more of a maroon, and the lines are soft and organic. Behind the worker figure is a Civil War era woman cleaning a musket, presumably her husband’s, emphasizing that the women’s work in wartime is not for themselves, but rather to support their men at the front. The background is rendered in a watercolour style wash of bluegrey, softly feathering around the female figures, emphasizing the organic lines.

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& s st a r t n o C parisons Com A

lthough there is a blend of geometric and organic shapes in “We Can Do It!”, the unnaturally strong lines and points of the woman’s bandanna ties, the speech bubble, and her uniform’s collar stand out compared to the more organic curves of her back and arms. The wrinkles in the pushed-up sleeve of her uniform have a geometric quality, as if they were pressed that way instead of naturally occurring. Even her face is geometric—the bridge of her nose is a sharp plane, her cheekbones are emphasized by her makeup, and her jawline is square. Her features are not particularly soft, despite her feminine makeup and kempt appearance. This contrasts with Miller’s other depictions of women in his factory posters, which fit in with the softer-featured, demure women commonly seen in wartime propaganda. In his “It’s a Tradition With Us, Mister!” poster, both women cast their eyes down to the task at hand, soft smiles gracing their lips, emphasizing their willingness and happiness to complete these tasks to help the men in their lives. The features of their faces are soft, the shading subtle, and the lines of their clothes are much more organic and natural than those seen in “We Can Do It!” Likewise, the woman depicted in George Rapp’s “I’ve found the job where I fit best!” poster is rendered in the same soft, feminine style as Miller’s “It’s a Tradition” women. Rapp’s female has a large smile on her face, her eyes cast down as she watches her work. The caption “I’ve found the job where I fit best!” emphasizes her

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happiness with her work, but by not looking directly at the viewer and having the words floating above her instead of coming from her, her happiness seems applied to her instead of owned by her. In contrast with Miller’s “We Can Do It!” woman, this one does not defiantly shout her phrase—she happily accepts it. The colours of Rapp’s poster are also more muted “I’ve found the job where I fit best!” George Rapp 1943 than Miller’s “We Can Do It!”; although the background is yellow, it is a softer, buttercup yellow, and there is a feathery white line separating the woman and her work from the background. The green of her headscarf and blue of her uniform are slightly desaturated in colour, not drawing emphasis the way the colours do in Miller’s “We Can Do It!”


“The Girl He Left Behind” Adolph Treidler 1943

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nother poster that depicts women in the more common propaganda style of the 1940s is Adolph Treidler’s “The Girl He Left Behind.” This poster further emphasizes the common depiction of women workers as those doing it for the men in their lives. This woman is once again depicted in a more feminine way than Miller’s “We Can Do It!” woman; she has soft lines in her face and a feminine emphasis to her figure—the contours of her chest are clearly visible and the smallness of her waist is

emphasized. Like the women in Miller’s “It’s a Tradition” and Rapp’s “I’ve found the job,” she does not look directly at the viewer; instead, she turns away from the viewer, looking out at her man at war. The background is rendered in a soft, watercolour style wash of blue-grey, and the colours of her uniform are muted, like they are in Rapp’s “I’ve found the job” and Miller’s “It’s a Tradition.”


ompared to these other propaganda women and their demure complacency in going to work “as a matter of citizenship and support for loved ones, mostly men, who were engaged in the conflict overseas,”13 Miller’s unsmiling, direct-gazing woman seems like a tough female, one who goes to work as “part of an explicit feminist agenda.”14 It seems that she is declaring in Miller’s poster that she and other women “Can Do It!” and should do “it” for themselves. However, when the poster is viewed as one in a series of posters created to promote workplace unity and displayed in a factory with both male and female workers alongside other posters such as Miller’s “Ask Your Supervisor,” it seems more likely that the poster’s message “wasn’t designed to “Ask Your Supervisor” J. Howard Miller 1943 empower workers, female or otherwise; it was meant, as were the other posters in the series, to control Westinghouse’s workforce.”15 Furthermore, although the “We Can Do It!” slogan seems in Miller’s poster like a defiant, empowering message to women, it is not the first shop poster on which this slogan was seen.


n a poster created for the Oldsmobile Division of GMC in 1942, two fists and forearms are pictured, with another hand on each forearm pulling back the sleeves. One arm, with a blue shirtsleeve, is labeled “labor”; the other, with a white shirtsleeve, “management.” Above the images of the arms are the words

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“Together We Can Do It!” and below the arms is a picture of a small tank and an army aircraft, with the words “Keep ‘Em Firing!” between two bands of white stars on red and blue strips, respectively. In the case of this poster, there is no question as to who and what is referred to by the phrase “We Can Do It!”; clearly, the message refers to the unification of labour and management in keeping the factories running smoothly and producing the products that will help the Americans win the war. Seen in the context of this GMC poster, which is attempting to keep worker unrest at bay, the message of Miller’s “We Can Do It!” takes on a less empowering meaning. Instead of a message of worker, particularly female worker, empowerment, it is a message of company unification. The “We” refers not to women, nor to workers alone, but instead to the company as a whole. Instead of defiantly declaring that “Together We Can Do It!” GMC 1942 the sacrifices of female workers will help win the war, Miller’s poster can be seen as promoting the same shopposter message as the GMC one: only by working with management, cooperating with supervisors, and putting the needs of the company first, can the war be won.

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t is difficult to look back upon a piece of American History that has become so ubiquitous and properly evaluate it within the context of the period of its’ creation. Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster has become so iconic of the American female factory worker of WWII, so popular “that the National Archives ranks it among its top ten most requested images,”16 that it seems impossible that at the time, it was not even remotely well known. What further complicates the history of Miller’s poster are the myths that surround the woman depicted. Commonly referred to today as “Rosie the Riveter,” the woman was not actually this character. The origins of Rosie are loosely tied to a big band song called “Rosie the Riveter,” which debuted after Miller’s poster was created.17 Furthermore, “it was not until the famed illustrator Norman Rockwell featured ‘Rosie’ on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in May 1943 that the character became well known,”18 two months after the posting and removal of Miller’s “We Can Do It!” However, Rosie as a character was iconic during WWII; she simply was not the woman pictured in Miller’s poster. She was “a figure that personified the millions of American women who worked in factories in support of war production,”19 a creation of the War Advertising Council’s Women in War Jobs/Industry campaign, which “culminated

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“Rosie the Riveter” Norman Rockwell 1943 in approximately 125 million advertisements in the major magazines in the nation,” and a television, radio program, newspaper story, magazine cover and in-store display personality. 20 She was “never any one picture or character,” rather, Rosie the Riveter was “an archetype who showed up in thousands of pictures, movies, songs, and books.”21 Despite the origins of Rosie the Riveter, however, any current search for her turns up an overwhelming number of images of none other than Miller’s “We Can Do It!” woman, begging the question of how she became Rosie to a nation of whom the majority would not have even seen her image until the mid1980s, particularly since it is questionable “whether, by 1943, the image of Rosie had become so widespread and culturally resonant that the public would identify any woman shown doing any blue-collar job as a Rosie.”22

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urthermore, the most popular depiction of Rosie at the time, Rockwell’s Rosie as depicted on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, bares only minute resemblance to Miller’s factory woman. Rockwell’s Rosie is much more voluptuous than Miller’s factory woman; her hair is red, and not tucked beneath any sort of bandana. She wears the same type of factory uniform, but is clothed in overalls over her factory shirt. Her image also contains a riveter, unlike in Miller’s poster, where we see no machinery at all. Rockwell’s Rosie has much softer features than Miller’s; her body is much more fluid and gentle, her face not marked by the rigid geometric shading we see in Miller’s. In Rockwell’s painting, the name Rosie is clearly present—painted on a lunchbox in her lap. She has goggles pushed back on her head, she is dirty, wearing no makeup, and almost looks haughty. However, she still shares some features with other common depictions of women in propaganda posters: her features are soft, and her eyes are cast down instead of looking directly at the viewer. Her pose and body are reminiscent of that of Michelangelo’s Isaiah on the Sistine Chapel ceiling—a much larger and more commanding vision of a woman than commonly seen at the time. She keeps one foot firmly planted on a copy of Mein Kampf, clearly showing her patriotism to the American cause, while behind her waves an American flag. This image is clearly meant to depict the character of Rosie the Riveter; whereas, in comparison, Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster gives no indication of any attachment to a character named Rosie, or even to a woman employed as a riveter.

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n A

American Icon


egardless, it is Miller’s “We Can Do It!” woman whose image appears everywhere as Rosie the Riveter. She is seen on “t-shirts, mugs, buttons, stickers, post-it notes, and Web sites as a sign of a strong woman—a feminist—who can accomplish anything.”23 Part of the reason for this is that Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster was dredged up in the mid-1980s by the feminist movement, and adopted by the movement as a feminist spokesperson. Having had no copyright applied to the poster at the time of its creation, Miller’s image of a factory woman was fair game for whomever wished to use it. Thus, an image that seemed to capture the “spunk, determination, and confidence of millions of American women who ‘enlisted’ for war reproduction,”24 was repurposed for a movement in which the phrase “We Can Do It!” actually did symbolize female empowerment and autonomy, particularly within the working world. It is therefore easy, because of this newly created meaning for Miller’s poster, to view it in its conception “through a lens shaped by what came later, particularly Second Wave feminism.”25 Which is to say that it is easy to attribute feminist ideals on to a poster that at the time of its creation and implementation had no such intentions. In fact, what we now see as an iconic image of “girl-power marketing[,] served not to empower women to leave the domestic sphere and join the paid workforce, but to contain labor unrest and discourage the growth of the labor movement.”26

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“We Can Do It!” products


hen evaluating the impact and success of Miller’s “We Can Do It!”, it is important to take into consideration both the intention of the poster when it was created as well as the lasting impression it left in American culture. Considering the original intent as a poster promoting workplace unity and discouraging uprisings and unrest in the workplace, it was most likely an effective message in a series of messages created for this purpose. There are no indications that the poster was received otherwise than as it was intended, and no reports of it creating any particular stirrings among female workers. In the implementation of the poster in the 1980s and its use to primarily create unrest and provoke discussions in the workplace in order to change the way women are treated and abolish the glass ceiling, as well as to empower women to rally around their feminism and proclaim themselves able to do whatever they wish, it was also successful as to its intended purpose. Therefore, its success has actually occurred twofold: in two wildly different contexts, that of its creation and that of its reincarnation, “We Can Do It!” has managed to transcend multiple generations as well as connotations, implying that it will most likely be able to do so again, when needed, as befits an American icon.

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Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!” poster is a piece of American WWII history that has managed to transcend multiple generations to gain more popularity today than it ever had at the time of its conception. It was created as merely one in a series of posters promoting workplace unity for Westinghouse factories in 1943, but it has come to define the feminist movement and serve as an empowering message to women everywhere. Perhaps the reason that it, instead of any other propaganda poster from the time, gained such widespread popularity is because of the differences between “We Can Do It!” and the more subdued, seemingly less powerful women commonly portrayed. The bright colours, assertive message, and direct gaze of the female worker all come together to create a poster easily interpreted as promoting female empowerment. By contrast, the other posters created by J. Howard Miller as well as other artists at the time, portray their women as complacent and accepting of their work and doing so in order to help the men in their lives as they fight at the front. Although Miller’s “We Can Do It!” was unlikely to have been attempting a feminist agenda or trying to promote anything other than unity between workers and management, the stylistic differences between it and other posters of the period of its creation lead it to, at the very least, stand out. Despite having gained such significance in American culture, there are many questions surrounding the history of Miller’s poster. Regardless, one thing remains certain: it has managed to stand the test of time, and therefore is undoubtedly a successful design.

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Endnotes Linda M. Scott, “Warring Images: Fashion and the Women’s Magazines 1941-1945,” Advertising and Society Review, 10 (2009) society_review/v010/10.2.scott01.html 2 James J. Kimble and Lester C. Olson, “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9 (2006): 534. 3 Kimble and Olson, “Visual Rhetoric,” 534. 4 Kimble and Olson, “Visual Rhetoric,” 534. 5 William L. Bird, Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 52. 6 Bird and Rubenstein, Design for Victory, 74. 7 Bird and Rubenstein, Design for Victory, 74. 8 Bird and Rubenstein, Design for Victory, 1. 9 Gwen Sharp and Lisa Wade, “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,” Contexts 10 (2011): 83, doi: 10.1177/1536504211408972. 10 Sharp and Wade, “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,”82. 11 Kimble and Olson, “Visual Rhetoric,” 535. 12 Kimble and Olson, “Visual Rhetoric,” 535. 13 Scott “Warring Images.” 14 Scott, “Warring Images.” 15 Sharp and Wade, “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,” 83. 16 Kimble and Olson, “Visual Rhetoric,” 536. 17 Stephen J. Eskilson, Graphic Design: A New History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 295. 18 Eskilson, Graphic Design, 295. 19 Eskilson, Graphic Design, 295. 20 Endres, “Rosie the Riveter”, 602. 21 Scott, “Warring Images”, 3. 22 Sharp and Wade, “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,” 83. 23 Kathleen L. Endres, “Rosie the Riveter,” in American Icons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things That Have Shaped Our Culture, vol. 3, ed. Dennis R. Hall and Susan Grove Hall. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006), 601. 24 Endres, “Rosie the Riveter,” 601. 25 Sharp and Wade, “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,” 83. 26 Sharp and Wade, “Secrets of a Feminist Icon,” 83. 1

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s k r o W


Bird, William L. Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein. Design For Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998. Endres, Kathleen L. “Rosie the Riveter.” In Vol. 3 of American Icons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things That Have Shaped Our Culture, edited by Dennis R. Hall and Susan Grove Hall, 601-606. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2006. Eskilson, Stephen J. Graphic Design: A New History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. Kimble, James J. and Lester C. Olson. “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9 (2006): 533-569. Scott, Linda M. “Warring Images: Fashion and the Women’s Magazines 1941 1945.” Advertising and Society Review 10 (2009) journals/advertising_and_society_review/v010/10.2.scott01.html Sharp, Gwen and Lisa Wade. “Secrets of a Feminist Icon.” Contexts 10 (2011): 82 83. doi: 10.1177/1536504211408972.

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e h T d n E

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Design Report  
Design Report  

A design report on J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster. Created for the History of Design class at FIDM