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  • Writer's pictureKim Sajet

She was much younger & did it in heels. Rosie the Riveter versus Uncle Sam.

Updated: Jul 6, 2019

This week the World heard that Naomi Parker Fraley one of the contenders for the original model of Rosie the Riveter died at the age of 96. Evidence produced by James J. Kimble cite photographs taken of Fraley working at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California wearing the tell-tale polka-dot bandana and overalls.[i] Not shown in the famous poster/portrait produced later that year by J. Howard Miller to lift the spirits of Westinghouse Electric’s employees, is that she did it all in heels. [Fig. 2]

Fig. 1

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Much has been written about the power of Rosie to serve as a beacon for women’s empowerment, co-opted over generations as a sign of female labor. [Fig. 1] To quote Margaret Thatcher “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”[ii] Less however, has been said about how Rosie the Riveter served as the female counter-point to Uncle Sam.

Uncle Sam, specifically the J.M. Flagg version of 1917, was based on a rendition of the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchner. [Fig. 3] First appearing on July 6, 1916 as the cover of Leslie’s Weekly with the caption “What are you doing for Preparedness?” Flagg redesigned the image to famously exhort “I Want YOU for the U.S. Army.” Claiming himself as the model, Flagg demonstrated such a level of practicality that an impressed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt speculated about the artist’s ancestry with open approval, “I congratulate you on your resourcefulness in saving model. Your method suggests Yankee forbears.”[iii] [Fig. 4]

Fig. 4

Flagg’s Uncle Sam poster may have relied on the features of his thirty-nine year old self, but the white hair, bushy eyebrows, and stern patrician bearing has a long history dating back to the War of 1812, and an actual person called Uncle Sam Wilson who supplied food to the American troops in containers branded ‘U.S.’ Known to everyone as “uncle” due to family ties that seemed to include large portions of his community, Sam Wilson’s initials on his packaging mirrored the initials of the country, with the result that Uncle Sam Wilson's service became synonymous with the organization of the U.S. government. As early as 1813 the Troy Post reported that, “This cant name [Uncle Sam] for our government has got almost as common as John Bull;” the moniker attached to the personification of Great Britain.[iv]

Pictorially, in the early years Uncle Sam was clean-shaven, amiable—even slightly goofy—wearing a stars and stripes dressing gown and liberty cap. But during the Civil War under the administrations of the cartoon satirist Thomas Nast in particular, Sam acquired a beard, lanky frame and gaunt features that closely resembled President Abraham Lincoln. A querulous ‘elder statesman,’ in top hat, tails, and matching red and white striped pants, Uncle Sam during the 1860s became a symbol of the Union cause, dispensing advice and exhorting citizens to do their patriotic duty. After the war, and into the twentieth century, his persona broadened to represent the federal government in general with a serious mien, and depending on the circumstance was either nonpartisan or wore the attitudes of the prevailing party. [Fig. 5]

Fig. 5

J. Howard Miller’s 1942 poster of Rosie the Riveter in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is current on display at the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition The Sweat of their Face: Portraying American Workers. As the curators point out, women were convinced by President Roosevelt to do their patriotic duty during World War II by seeing imagery developed by the Office of War Information.[v] Suggesting that women already had all the skills to work in factories and still retain their femininity, advertisements created by teams of artists and copy-editors reasoned, "Can you use an electric mixer? If so, you can learn to operate a drill.” [Fig. 6] Their direct appeals to women helped increase the domestic labor force by 6.5 million as men left to serve in the military.[vi]

Fig. 6

Old, white, male and patrician, Montgomery Flagg’s Uncle Sam recruited soldiers in both World Wars by telling Americans what to do. Using the declarative first person singular in “I want YOU For U.S. Army” his piercing blue eyes and finger —pointed directly at the viewer —made it very clear that what was being conveyed was not a request, but an order. Rosie the Riveter in contrast, used inclusive language to inspire a collective call to action: “We Can Do It!, “she cries, while looking you directly in the eye and inviting you to join her in rolling-up your sleeves. Rosie was a friend, Sam the stern uncle; and while he wears a top hat befitting a member ruling class, she has her hair up in a simple kerchief that marks her as a member of the working class. Is it no wonder, then that women across the country identified with Rosie and continue to emulate her passion as a symbol of female empowerment, while Uncle Sam, always impressive but also a little scary is a favorite costume for the Fourth of July, but little else? [Fig. 7]

Fig. 7


[i] Fox, Margalit. "Naomi Parker Fraley, the Real Rosie the Riveter, Dies at 96." New York Times January 22, 2018 online:

[ii] Pearson, Allison. "Margaret Thatcher dies: We must show men that we're better than they are." The Telegraph 8 April 2013. Online

[iii] Andrews, Travis. "The Uncle Sam 'I Want YOU' poster is 100 years old. Almost everything about it was borrowed. The Washington Post April 3, 2017: Online

[iv] Hackett Fischer, David. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pg. 229.

[v] Ward, David and Moss, Dorothy. The Sweat of their Face. Portraying American Workers, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2017. Exhibition catalogue, National Portrait Gallery. pg. 156

[vi] Kennett, Lee (1985). For the duration... : the United States goes to war, Pearl Harbor-1942. New York: Scribner.


1. J. Howard Miller, We Can Do It!, Photolithograph, ca. 1942. Division of Political History, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington D.C.

2.1942 photograph of Naomi Parker Fraley by an unknown photographer pictured at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, CA. (Bettman Archive / Getty Images)

3. James Montgomery Flagg, I want you for U.S. Army: Nearest Recruiting Station, c. 1917, Lithographic poster, Collection of the Library of Congress.

4. Arnold Genthe, James Montgomery Flagg, 1915, Collection of the Library of Congress.

5. Thomas Nast, Uncle Sam's Position. "Open your mouth and shut your eyes, and see what it will being you." published in "Harper's Weekly" February 1877. Wood engraving, 1877. Old Print Shop, Philadelphia.

This political cartoon references Samuel Tilden whom Rutherford Hayes defeated in the elections of 1876 to become president by a single vote. Uncle Sam is shown with his eyes shut and mouth open reflecting how Tilden cried for reform and the end of corruption, but was considered guilty by voters of his own misdeeds. One of the banners behind him reads, "The statue of limitations on Tilden's R.R. suits, on his income tax, on his presidential."

6. Howard R. Hollem, Lathe operator matching parts for transport planes at the Consolidated Aircraft Corporations plant at Fort Worth Texas, 1942. Digital inkjet print from 4 x 5 transparency, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

7. A Collage of Rosie’s Top left to right: Kelly Rowland, Beyonce, Jenny McCarthy, Bottom left to right: Kendall Jenner, Bianca Del Rio & fashion blogger Kitana from Kitana’s Closet. Kim Sajet, picstitched from online sources, 2018.

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