“It turns out that almost everything we think about Rosie the Riveter is wrong,” James J. Kimble, the scholar in question, told The Omaha World-Herald in 2016. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
For Dr. Kimble, the quest for Rosie, which began in earnest in 2010, was “an interest that developed into a real deep curiosity that became an obsession,” as he explained in an interview for this obituary in 2016.
His painstaking work ultimately homed in on Mrs. Fraley, who had worked in a Navy machine shop during World War II, as a highly likely candidate.
It also ruled out the best-known incumbent, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, a Michigan woman whose innocent assertion that she was Rosie was widely accepted for years.
On Mrs. Doyle’s death in 2010, that assertion was promulgated even more widely through obituaries, including one in The New York Times.
Dr. Kimble, an associate professor of communication and the arts at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, reported his findings in “Rosie’s Secret Identity,” an article in the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs in the summer of 2016.
The article brought journalists to Mrs. Fraley’s door at long last.
Pleased to Be an ‘Icon’
“The women of this country these days need some icons,” Mrs. Fraley said in the People magazine interview. “If they think I’m one, I’m happy about that.”
The confusion over the identity of Rosie’s flesh-and-blood forebear stems partly from the fact that the name Rosie the Riveter has been applied to more than one cultural artifact.
The first of them — and the first to use the name “Rosie the Riveter” — was a wartime song, so titled, by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. It sang the praises of a munitions worker who “keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage / Sitting up there on the fuselage.” The song, recorded by the bandleader Kay Kyser among others, became a hit.
The identity of the “Rosie” who inspired that song is well established: Rosalind P. Walter, the daughter of a well-to-do Long Island family who as a young woman worked as a riveter on Corsair fighter planes and in later years was a noted philanthropist, most visibly as a benefactor of public television programs.
Another Rosie sprang from Norman Rockwell, whose cover for the May 29, 1943, issue of The Saturday Evening Post depicts a muscular woman in overalls, with a sandwich in one hand (the name Rosie is visible on her lunchbox), an immense rivet gun on her lap and a copy of “Mein Kampf” crushed gleefully underfoot.
Here, too, the inspiration is beyond doubt: Rockwell’s model is known to have been a Vermont woman named Mary Doyle Keefe, who died in 2015.
But in between these two Rosies lay the source of the competing claims that arose in the late 20th century and afterward, Geraldine Doyle’s included: a wartime industrial poster displayed briefly in Westinghouse Electric Corporation plants in 1943.
Rendered in bold graphics and bright primary colors by the Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller, it depicts a young woman, clad in a blue work shirt and red-and-white polka-dot bandanna. Flexing her right bicep, she declares, “We Can Do It!”
Mr. Miller’s poster, one of a series the company commissioned from him, was never meant for public display, and barely a thousand copies were printed. Like the others in the series, it was intended only to rally Westinghouse employees, and deter absenteeism and strikes, in wartime.
For decades, the poster remained all but forgotten. Then, in the early 1980s, a copy came to light — most likely one in the National Archives in Washington, one of only two known originals extant. It quickly became a powerful feminist symbol, and only then was the name Rosie the Riveter applied retrospectively to the woman in the picture.
“You start to see the first mentions of it in popular culture in about ’82, ’84,” Dr. Kimble explained in the 2016 interview with The Times.
Because the Norman Rockwell image, protected by copyright, was reproduced only rarely in the postwar years, the newly anointed Rosie of “We Can Do It!” soon came to be regarded as the platonic form. It became ubiquitous on T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters and other memorabilia.
(In 2017, The New Yorker published an updated Rosie illustration, by Abigail Gray Swartz, on the cover of its issue of Feb. 6. It depicted a woman of color striking a similar pose, with a pink knitted cap, of the kind worn in recent women’s marches, replacing the bandanna.)
Rosie’s newfound exposure piqued the attention of women who had done wartime industrial work. Several came forward and identified themselves as having been the poster’s inspiration.
The most plausible claim seemed to be that of Mrs. Doyle, who in 1942, as a teenager, had worked briefly as a metal presser in a Michigan plant.
Her claim centered on two images: the first a 1942 photograph, the second the Miller poster.
Mystery of ‘the Lathe Woman’
The photograph, distributed to news organizations by the Acme photo agency, showed a coverall-clad young woman, her hair wound in a polka-dot bandanna, in profile at an industrial lathe. It was published in American newspapers in the spring and summer of 1942, though rarely with a caption identifying the woman or the factory in which she worked.
In 1984, Mrs. Doyle saw a reprint of that photo, with no caption, in Modern Maturity magazine. She thought it resembled her younger self, and concluded that it depicted her at the Michigan plant.
Ten years later, she came across the Miller poster, featured on the cover of Smithsonian magazine in March 1994. That image, she thought, resembled the woman in the lathe photo — and therefore resembled her.
By the end of the 1990s, Mrs. Doyle was being identified in the news media as the inspiration for Mr. Miller’s Rosie. There the matter would very likely have rested, had it not been for Dr. Kimble’s interest.
It was not Mrs. Doyle’s claim per se that he found suspect: As he emphasized in the Times interview, she had clearly made it in good faith.
What nettled him was the news media’s unquestioning reiteration of that claim. He embarked on a six-year odyssey to identify the woman at the lathe, and to determine whether that image had influenced Mr. Miller’s poster.
In the end, Dr. Kimble’s detective work revealed that the lathe worker — and, by extension, the probable inspiration for the poster — was Naomi Parker Fraley.
The third of eight children of Joseph Parker, a mining engineer, and the former Esther Leis, a homemaker, Naomi Fern Parker was born in Tulsa, Okla., on Aug. 26, 1921. The family moved wherever Mr. Parker’s work took them, living in New York, Missouri, Texas, Washington, Utah and California, where they settled in Alameda, near San Francisco.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the 20-year-old Naomi and her 18-year-old sister, Ada, went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, among the first of some 3,000 women to do war work there. The sisters were assigned to the machine shop, where their duties included drilling, patching airplane wings and, fittingly, riveting.
It was there that the Acme photographer captured Naomi Parker, her hair done up in a bandanna for safety, at her lathe. She clipped the photo from the newspaper and kept it for decades.
“I even got fan mail,” Mrs. Fraley told People magazine in 2016.
After the war, she worked as a waitress at the Doll House, a restaurant in Palm Springs, Calif., popular with Hollywood stars. She married and had a family.
Years later, Mrs. Fraley encountered the Miller poster. “I did think it looked like me,” she told People, though at the time she did not connect it with the newspaper photograph.
In 2011, Mrs. Fraley and her sister attended a reunion of female war workers at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. There, prominently displayed, was a photo of the woman at the lathe — captioned as Geraldine Doyle.
It Was ‘Me in the Photo’
“I couldn’t believe it,” Ms. Fraley told The Oakland Tribune in 2016. “There was another person’s name under my identity. But I knew it was actually me in the photo.”
She wrote to the National Park Service, which administers the site. In reply, she received a letter saying that the image had already been identified as Mrs. Doyle. The letter went on to ask for Mrs. Fraley’s help in determining “the true identity of the woman in the photograph” — and, by implication, of the woman in the poster.
“As one might imagine,” Dr. Kimble wrote in his 2016 article, Mrs. Fraley “was none too pleased to find that her identity was under dispute.”
During this time, Dr. Kimble was searching for the woman at the lathe, scouring the internet, books, old newspapers and stock-photo collections for a captioned copy of the image.
At last he found a copy from a dealer in vintage photographs. It had the photographer’s original caption on the back, including the date — March 24, 1942 — and the location, Alameda.
Best of all was this line:
“Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating.”
Using genealogical records, Dr. Kimble located Mrs. Fraley and her sister, Ada Wyn Parker Loy, then living together in Cottonwood, Calif. He visited them there in 2015, whereupon Mrs. Fraley produced the cherished newspaper photo she had saved all those years.
“I would say there is no question that she is the ‘lathe woman’ in the photograph,” Dr. Kimble said.
But an essential question remained: Did that photograph influence the Miller poster?
As Dr. Kimble emphasized, the connection is not conclusive: Mr. Miller left no heirs, and his personal papers are silent on the subject. But there is, he said, suggestive circumstantial evidence.
“The timing is pretty good,” he explained. “The poster appears in Westinghouse factories in February 1943. Presumably they’re created weeks, possibly months, ahead of time. So I imagine Miller’s working on it in the summer and fall of 1942.”
As Dr. Kimble also learned, the photo of Mrs. Fraley at the lathe was published in The Pittsburgh Press, in Mr. Miller’s hometown, on July 5, 1942. “So Miller very easily could have seen it,” he said.
Then there is the telltale polka-dot head scarf, and the general resemblance between Mrs. Fraley at her lathe and the Rosie in the poster.
“There is a pretty decent similarity,” Dr. Kimble said, adding, “We can rule her in as a good candidate for having inspired the poster.”
Mrs. Fraley’s first marriage, to Joseph Blankenship, ended in divorce; her second, to John Muhlig, ended with his death in 1971. Her third husband, Charles Fraley, whom she married in 1979, died in 1998.
Her survivors include her son, Joseph Blankenship; four stepsons, Ernest, Daniel, John and Michael Fraley; two stepdaughters, Patricia Hood and Ann Fraley; two sisters, Mrs. Loy and Althea Hill; three grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and many step-grandchildren and step-great-grandchildren.
Her death, at an assisted living facility, was confirmed by her daughter-in-law, Marnie Blankenship.
If Dr. Kimble exercised all due scholarly caution in identifying Mrs. Fraley as the inspiration for “We Can Do It!,” her views on the subject were unequivocal.
Interviewing Mrs. Fraley in 2016, The World-Herald asked her how it felt to be known publicly as Rosie the Riveter.
“Victory!,” she cried. “Victory! Victory!”
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