Woman believed to be inspiration for Rosie the Riveter dies at 96
By HARRISON SMITH | The Washington Post | Published: January 23, 2018
LONGVIEW, Wash. — More than 6 million American women entered the workforce during World War II, taking on jobs as farmers, nurses, firefighters and factory workers. They welded, lathed and — on occasion — riveted, and with their sleeves rolled up and hair pulled back their efforts served as a demonstration of feminine strength and resolve, immortalized in a poster bearing the slogan "We Can Do It!"
For most Americans, the bicep-flexing woman depicted in the image was known as Rosie the Riveter. She appeared on coffee mugs, tote bags, posters and T-shirts, was the inspiration for a popular Instagram picture by Beyoncé and just last year was re-envisioned, as a black woman in a pink knit cap, for a cover of the New Yorker magazine.
To one West Coast family, the woman was known simply as Naomi, a onetime machinist at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, who later became a waitress and homemaker. She had the same upturned nose as the Rosie of the poster and, long ago, wore a similar polka-dot bandanna as shown in the image.
"I did think it looked like me," Naomi Parker Fraley told People magazine in 2016, describing her resemblance to the poster, "but nobody ever mentioned it."
Fraley, who was 96 when she died Jan. 20 at an assisted-living center in Longview, Washington, was described in recent years — and in several obituaries — as "the real Rosie the Riveter."
Her claim to the title was as good as anyone's, and so was the story that accompanied it. Yet the identity of Rosie - or, to be more precise, the "We Can Do It!" woman - remains as shrouded in mystery as those of two other iconic figures from World War II, the young man and woman who appeared on the cover of Life magazine in August 1945, kissing in Times Square after the announcement of peace with Japan.
Regarding "Rosie," Fraley entered into a constellation of claims and rebuttals, which now center on the purported link between a newspaper photo of Fraley and the poster, whose bright shades of yellow and blue were painted around 1942 by artist J. Howard Miller.
Designed as a morale-building poster for employees of Westinghouse Electric, the image was never labeled as Rosie the Riveter, and was seen by perhaps just a few hundred people until it suddenly reemerged in public view in the 1980s, said Penny Colman, a Rosie scholar who remains unconvinced that Fraley inspired the poster.
"It's more palatable to the culture to just isolate or hold up one woman than to deal with the concept that the image was about women's power at a critical point of American history," she said in a phone interview, criticizing lionization of Fraley as the sole model for Rosie.
Like millions of other women, Fraley said she had joined the war effort out of a sense of duty. An Acme news-service photographer had snapped a picture of her in 1942, leaning over a lathe in Alameda while wearing her signature bandanna. But until she walked into a museum exhibit in 2009, she had no idea the image had been linked to the "We Can Do It!" poster.
She had been married, divorced and twice-widowed, with the war years long beyond her, but she recognized the picture immediately, having saved it at home for decades. The exhibit's caption, however, identified her not as Naomi Parker but as Geraldine Hoff Doyle, then a 19-year-old metalworker in Michigan.
Doyle said she came across the photo in 1984 while flipping through AARP magazine Modern Maturity, and soon came to believe she was the lady at the lathe. By the time of her death in 2010, Doyle was widely accepted as the inspiration for Rosie, with many historians and journalists speculating that Miller had used her photo as a model.
Fraley was understandably perturbed. "I just wanted my own identity," she told People. "I didn't want fame or fortune, but I did want my own identity."
She said she sent a clipping of the photo and its original caption to the National Park Service, which administers the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. But she received little attention until 2015, when she met James Kimble, a communication professor who studies domestic propaganda at Seton Hall University.
Kimble had spent six years trying to track down the identity of Rosie the Riveter, questioning the near-universal acceptance of Doyle's account. In the course of his research, he uncovered a crucial newspaper caption for the lathe picture. "Pretty Naomi Parker," it read, "looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating."
The clipping, and the visit to Fraley, resulted in a 2016 article published in the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs, in which Kimble tied Fraley to Rosie for the first time.
When a columnist for the Omaha World-Herald asked later that year how it felt to be recognized as Rosie the Riveter, Fraley responded with a shout: "Victory! Victory! Victory!"
Kimble noted that the link between Fraley and Miller's popular poster was not certain. The wire photo of Fraley was published in the Pittsburgh Press, where Miller was living, and was printed around the time he was working on the poster, Kimble said. But the image was never found in the artist's collection, and Miller never discussed seeing the photo.
"The link," Kimble wrote in an email, "is only suggestive and circumstantial."
Naomi Fern Parker was born in Tulsa on Aug. 26, 1921. Her father was a mining engineer whose job led the family to move across the country. He eventually settled in Alameda, where in 1942 Naomi and a sister began working at the Naval Air Station.
At the time, Rosie the Riveter was known largely because of a popular song of that name, written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb. The track's inspiration - Rosalind Walter, a riveter on fighter planes - is widely accepted, as is the model for a Rosie the Riveter illustration by Norman Rockwell.
Appearing on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in May 1943, the picture showed a more muscular and lifelike Rosie than the poster by Miller, and was reportedly inspired by a neighbor of Rockwell, telephone operator Mary Doyle Keefe, who died in 2015.
Naomi Parker's first marriage, to brick mason Joe Blankenship, ended in divorce. Her second husband, John Muhlig, died in 1971. Eight years later, she married Charles Fraley; he died in 1998.
By that time, the Rosie of Miller's poster had secured its place in the national imagination - an act that Colman credited mainly to the gift shop of the National Archives. The poster had disappeared into the vaults of the Archives, she said, but was rediscovered in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Tom Fortunato, the gift shop's sales operation manager, told her that the poster was pulled at the suggestion of a consultant to the Archives, who suggested that it was marketable. It was labeled as a Rosie the Riveter print, she recalled his saying, "because we knew it would sell better."
Fortunato could not immediately be reached for comment, and a National Archives spokesman could not confirm the gift shop's role in turning the poster into an emblem of Rosie.
Fraley's death was confirmed by a son from her first marriage, Joe Blankenship of Kelso, Washington, who said she had cancer. He and his wife, Marnie Blankenship, had in recent years become some of Fraley's chief advocates for recognition.
Additional survivors include six stepchildren; two sisters; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Shortly before her death, Fraley seemed to acknowledge the skepticism toward her role as Rosie. But, at the end of the day, she said it was beside the point.
"The women of this country these days need some icons," she told People. "If they think I'm one, I'm happy about that."