The woman that history forgot is 94 now. She tires easily. Her name is Naomi, and pretty much no one knows that she’s likely the inspiration for one of World War II’s most famous images, at least not until now.
Naomi can’t hear much, so when I call her in California her 92-year-old sister, Ada, gets on the line and yells the questions at her, resulting in a jumbled, three-way conversation that exhausts the sisters.
Finally, I decide to keep it simple. Ada, can you ask your sister one question? Yes, she says.
Ask her this: “Naomi, how does it feel to be Rosie the Riveter?”
She asks the question, and I hear the answer back right away.
I hear it because this 94-year-old who tires easily, this old woman who, if history had been kind, would be an American feminist icon, isn’t exhausted anymore. Now she’s electrified. Now she’s yelling, as loud as she can.
“Victory!” Naomi Parker Fraley yells. “Victory! Victory!”
Ada is laughing now. “Did you hear that?” she says into the phone.
Yes, I say. Loud and clear.
You have never heard of Naomi Parker Fraley. Neither had I, until a Seton Hall University professor who grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, made it his life’s work to know everything there is to know about the famous “We Can Do It!” poster that came to symbolize the WWII-era female worker — the strong, tough woman known as Rosie the Riveter.
Along the way, that college professor discovered a startling error in Rosie’s creation story.
A Michigan woman long believed to be the photographic model for Rosie the Riveter on the poster — a woman who when she died was memorialized in newspapers across the country as “the real-life Rosie” — was in fact not the model for the famed image, professor James Kimble argues in an academic journal article available this week.
In fact, the real-life model for the “We Can Do It!” poster is likely a woman named Naomi, he told me when I first met him last year. She’s from California. And she’s still alive.
“It turns out that almost everything we think about Rosie the Riveter is wrong,” Kimble says. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
I have experience with history getting a little messed up. For parts of the past two years I have researched, interviewed experts and written about the famed flag-raising photo on Iwo Jima. That iconic photo is now the subject of a U.S. Marine Corps investigation — and an upcoming documentary — because the research shows that one of the famed flag raisers, John Bradley, is most likely not in the famous photo, and a completely unknown man named Harold Schultz is.
So I’m well aware that history isn’t carved in stone but rather sketched in pencil — that a lot of facts about our past start to look a lot less factual when closely examined.
But still, it shocked me a little when Kimble walked me through just how badly we misunderstand the history of the most famous image of Rosie the Riveter.
Rosie, as you probably know, is the shorthand way to describe the millions of women who poured into the American workforce during World War II, replacing the men who had gone off to fight. And while it’s a catch-all term — a character drawn and painted many different ways by many different artists, including Norman Rockwell — the “We Can Do It!” poster has come to symbolize Rosie the Riveter. The Rosie on that poster is who we think of when we think of Rosie.
I figured the “We Can Do It!” poster featuring Rosie was produced by the American government. Nope. It was produced by the Westinghouse Corp. and was meant to be placed inside factories.
I figured the poster grew famous during World War II. Not at all. Only 1,000 copies of the poster were printed, and the image didn’t become iconic until the late 1980s, when it was resurrected as a symbol of female strength.
And finally, I assumed we knew the name of the woman who became Rosie the Riveter in the famous poster. Wrong again.
For decades, the name of the woman wasn’t known. And then, as the poster grew famous in the 1980s and 1990s, historians linked it to a wire service photograph taken of a young woman wearing a polka dot bandanna and leaning over a lathe inside a World War II-era plant. The poster was most likely based on the woman in that photograph, they concluded, even though the artist didn’t use the specific pose. But who was the woman in the photo?
We got an answer in 1994, when a story on a woman named Geraldine Hoff Doyle appeared in a history magazine. She said that she was the woman in the photo, and the model for Rosie in the “We Can Do It!” poster. It was from that single moment — a woman recognizing herself in a photo and a famous poster — that a fact was born, sort of.
At first historians and journalists alike treated the idea that Doyle was the famous Rosie as a possibility, not a certainty. They qualified it using words like “maybe” and “could be.” And then, as the 1990s became the 2000s, the way we described the story changed. By the time Doyle died in 2010, the qualifiers were gone. Media outlets like NBC and Time magazine trumpeted that she was the real-life Rosie.
It had become a fact because, as the years passed, we simply started treating it as one.
That’s a problem, thought professor Kimble. As far as Kimble could tell, no one had ever checked Doyle’s story.
The professor decided to do that.
Kimble grew up in Norfolk, graduated from Norfolk High School and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, then embarked on a career as a Seton Hall communications professor specializing in how the United States used propaganda during the Civil War, World War II and the Cold War. This research quite naturally led him to Rosie and the “We Can Do It!” poster, one of the most well-known propaganda posters in American history.
So if the woman in the poster is indeed modeled on the woman in the photo, where was this photo taken? And when?
Answering this question was not easy, as Kimble recounts in his excellent article in the journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs, available Wednesday. The versions of the photo he had seen were undated and not captioned.
So he called all the various wire services and stock photo collections that might now own the photo. He called naval bases and photo experts. He did endless Google searches. He leafed through endless issues of WWII-era magazines, looking for the photo in question in the hope it might be captioned with a date or a place. This took months, and got him pretty much nowhere — though a particular naval base in California kept popping up, a location that piqued Kimble’s interest because Doyle had worked at a factory in Michigan.
And then, in a feat of both persistence and luck, yet another Google search led Kimble to a Memphis company that sells old newspaper photos. The company just happened to be selling the photo he was looking for, the photo of the woman leaning over the lathe. He bought it, and when it arrived in the mail he realized it had the caption information he had been searching for on the back.
The photo was taken March 24, 1942, in Alameda, California. That pretty much eliminated Doyle as the photo’s subject, because she worked in a plant in Michigan and hadn’t even started there by that date.
Besides, the woman in the photo had a name.
“Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating,” the caption read.
Oh, my, Kimble thought. And then he thought this: Who the heck is Naomi Parker?
That’s how he found himself in California last year, meeting with two elderly widows, sisters who live together now and go by their married names of Naomi Fraley and Ada Wyn Loy.
“He brought us flowers,” Ada tells me. “His wife told him to do that.”
Naomi and Ada remembered the photographer showing up at the Navy plant where they worked as mechanics in 1942. Ada remembered watching Naomi pose by leaning over a lathe.
And the sisters informed Kimble that Naomi had actually noticed the error nearly a decade ago, when the sisters attended a California reunion of Rosie the Riveters. The reunion organizer had set up an exhibit that displayed a blown-up, familiar-looking photo of a woman at a lathe. The exhibit said that the woman in the photo was Geraldine Doyle, and that the famous “We Can Do It!” poster was modeled off of her face in the photo.
But that’s not Geraldine Doyle, Naomi thought. That’s me!
The sisters have an original newspaper clipping to prove it, saved by Ada all these years as it yellowed and faded inside a shoe box. The headline above that photo says “The Navy Says She’s De-Glamorized” and the caption again lists Alameda as the photo’s location and “Miss Naomi Parker” as its subject.
Naomi worked as a mechanic until war’s end. She married a brick mason, had a son and got divorced. She had three grandchildren. She mourned her longtime husband Charles Fraley's death in 1998. She and her sister, her lifelong best friend, moved back in together.
Naomi has lived a life, a largely anonymous one. And yet there’s a good chance that her face is on one of the most famous posters of all time. There’s a good chance that her face is the face people think of when they think of Rosie the Riveter.
“Naomi Parker was and is a real person,” Kimble says when I ask him why he thinks it’s important to get the creation story of the famous poster right. “Misidentifying her is a huge disservice to her and her descendants. ... This image is part of our cultural heritage, so it’s important we understand the context. And part of that context is the correct identity of the woman in the poster.”
Naomi thinks it’s important, too. She and Ada aren’t looking to get rich, or even to have newspaper reporters ringing them up at home. Frankly, they were a fair bit confused as to why I called them the other day.
But what they are looking for is accuracy, Ada says. They want history to record Naomi’s correct place in it, so that we remember, even after she is gone.
At the end of our phone call, Naomi tires and stops answering Ada’s yelled questions. And so I ask Ada a final simple one, before I say goodbye.
How do you feel about all this, about your sister likely being Rosie the Riveter in a famous poster?
Ada has a simple answer.
“It’s about time,” she says.