all our heroes have died

January 25, 2011

Though the newspaper containing her obituary was taken to the landfill weeks ago, the natural-cause death of 86 year-old Geraldine Hoff Doyle has stuck with me. Not because the loving wife and mother of six from Lansing, Michigan received a half-page write up in the Los Angeles Times, but because in describing Doyle’s life, the piece inadvertently exposed the ironic truth behind another one of America’s great propaganda icons.

In 1942, when Doyle was only 17, she took a job at the American Broach & Machine Company as a way to contribute to the war effort. She didn’t think much when during her first week of work a photographer snapped a picture of her at the metal-stamping machine. But the United Press photo ended up in the hands of an artist commissioned by the government to create inspiring wartime posters and Doyle became the unlikely face of Rosie the Riveter–the hard-working woman (“WE CAN DO IT!” the poster proclaimed) who came to symbolize female autonomy during WWII and beyond.

Only thing is that Doyle quit the factory a few weeks after the photo was taken because she found out that the woman who had the job before her lost her fingers to one of the machines. And took a job in a bookstore before quitting it all to marry a dentist and be a babymaker like every other woman did in the 1950s.

Not that being a mother isn’t a job, but I’m sure that it isn’t quite the self-sufficient hero of womanhood feminists think of when using the image of a bandana-clad woman flexing her biceps.

As with many pop icons in our image-based society (Che being another awesome example–he was a dick!), the reality behind Rosie the Riveter is far less idealistic than her fiction.

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