Naomi Parker Fraley is widely believed to be the woman in J Howard Miller’s iconic painting.
We’re all familiar with the image of Rosie the Riveter: the woman confidently proclaiming from a poster that “We Can Do It!”, a red bandanna knotted around her head in a no-nonsense manner, the sleeve of her blue shirt rolled up to reveal a flexing bicep. An American WW2 icon, Rosie is now widely used as a symbol of feminist camaraderie and grit. We see her in GIFs and on greeting cards, T-shirts and magazine covers. Her outfit, meanwhile, has been donned by everyone from Women’s March attendees to celebrities like Pink and Beyoncé.
But while the image of Rosie the Riveter is famous, the woman who probably served as her inspiration is not. Naomi Parker Fraley – thought to have been the model for the woman in the celebrated “We Can Do It!” poster – has now died, at the age of 96.
The term “Rosie the Riveter” was used in the US during WW2 to refer to all women war workers. However, the most famous incarnation of Rosie came in the the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster, designed in 1942 by graphic artist J Howard Miller.
Miller’s poster was part of a series of artworks encouraging support for the USA’s entry into WW2. He is believed to have based it on a photograph of a 20-year-old Parker Fraley, taken while she worked a lathe at the Naval Air Station in Almeda, California.
The New York Times reports that Parker Fraley and her younger sister Ada were among the first women to work in the machine shop at the airbase, where their responsibilities included “drilling, patching airplane wings and, fittingly, riveting”.
In the photograph, which was widely published in the early Forties to illustrate articles about women war workers, Parker Fraley wears her hair tied back with a bandanna for safety. Her sturdy workwear also strongly resembles that of the woman in Miller’s poster.
But Parker Fraley wasn’t always credited as the inspiration for Miller’s artwork. The “We Can Do It!” poster went largely unnoticed during the war itself, but was later rediscovered and repurposed as feminist iconography in the Eighties. In 1994, a woman named Geraldine Doyle saw an uncaptioned photograph of Parker Fraley and mistakenly believed it was a picture of her, taken while she worked at an industrial plant in Michigan.
Doyle never provided any hard evidence for her claim, but was widely believed. However, when she died in 2010, an academic named James Kimble began to suspect that she might have been mistaken in thinking she was the woman in the photo.
Kimble, an associate professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, had previously delved into the history of the “We Can Do It!” poster for an academic paper.
“I had said in that research that almost everything we know about that poster is wrong,” he told the BBC. “So when Doyle died in 2010, and there were all these obituaries [claiming she was the woman in the painting], I of course thought, how do we know she’s really the model? What’s the proof?”
In 2015, Kimble found a copy of the photo of Parker Fraley in the Naval Air Station workshop, this time with an original caption featuring the subject’s real name, a date, and a location. The photo had been featured in many magazines and newspapers shortly before Miller created his poster, including in a paper in Miller’s hometown of Pittsburgh.
Convinced that he had found the real Rosie the Riveter, Kimble tracked Parker Fraley – by now in her 90s – down to her home in Almeda, where she still lived. She revealed that she had known she was the real inspiration for the poster for years after she saw her photograph (wrongly credited as a photo of Doyle) placed alongside the poster at an exhibition.
Describing his first meeting with Parker Fraley, Kimble told the BBC: “She was just so excited and thrilled that someone was there to listen to her story.
“By that point it was three or four years she had been aware that her photo was out there under someone else’s name. No matter how hard she tried, no-one would listen to her.”
After the war, Parker Fraley and Ada Fraley worked at a restaurant in Palm Springs. She married three times, divorcing twice, and she and Ada moved in together after her third husband died in 1998. She is survived by a son from her first marriage, and four stepsons and two stepdaughters from her marriage to her third husband, Charles Fraley.
In 2016, People magazine asked Parker Fraley how she felt about being the likely inspiration for the most famous Rosie the Riveter image.
“The women of this country these days need some icons,” she replied. “If they think I’m one, I’m happy.”
Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.
Images: Rex Features / Giphy