It is one of the most famous images from World War II: a woman with a red, polka-dot bandanna flexing her bicep underneath the words “We Can Do It!” The image — now plastered on magnets, coffee mugs and socks — is a feminist symbol, a cultural icon that has inspired millions of women.
Who was the determined woman behind the iconic poster by J. Howard Miller? For decades, the world believed it was Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Michigan. But new research suggests the claim may belong to a different woman, Naomi Parker-Fraley, a 95-year old who moved to the area in February and now lives in an assisted care facility in Longview.
Miller’s muse for the poster still is a mystery. But researchers have confirmed Parker-Fraley is the subject in a photo thought to have inspired him to draw the poster, which is often erroneously called “Rosie the Riveter.”
Parker-Fraley’s story has been featured in People magazine, an episode of the Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” and in an article in Harper’s Bazaar that called her “the Real-Life Rosie the Riveter.” Now, suffering from terminal cancer and under Hospice care, her family is determined to help her reclaim her spot in history as the misidentified woman in the photo.
“It’s only fair. It was her, and still is,” said her sister Ada Wyn Parker Loy, 93, of Longview.
Led World War II surge in women workers
Just months after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Naval Air Station in Alameda, Calif., put a call out for civilian workers, regardless of gender. Hoping to contribute to the war effort, Joseph Parker walked two of his daughters, 20-year old Naomi and 18-year-old Ada Wyn, down to the base to apply.
“We wouldn’t have done it, except our daddy told us to get down there and get a job,” said Loy, laughing in a recent interview. “They asked me what a differential was, and I said, ‘It’s a rear-end of a car.’ And they said, ‘You’re hired.’ ”
Around March 1942, the Parker girls were among the first females hired on the base as full-time mechanics. Eventually, the base hired another 400 women in the machine shop and an additional 3,000 throughout the campus, according to research published in a 2016 article in “Rhetoric and Public Affairs” by James J. Kimble.
Parker-Fraley repaired damaged naval airplanes. She did fabrication, riveting and drilling, among other tasks.
The sisters didn’t have driver’s licenses, so they caught rides with a male co-worker, Loy said. Women made “good money” on the base, she added. According to Kimble, the starting salary for woman was 50 cents an hour.
While many women workers faced discrimination or harassment on the job, Parker-Fraley said she had a positive experience.
“They treated us very good,” she recalled.
Before starting work at 7 a.m., they put on coveralls, low heels and bandannas to tie back their hair. Parker-Fraley bought her red polka-dot bandanna from a “Five and Dime” store, said her daughter-in-law, Marnie Blankenship, 66, of Kelso.
Shortly after Parker-Fraley started the job, a news photographer from United Press International visited the base to capture the early women workers. He snapped a few shots of her peering over a turret lathe. A local newspaper featured one of the lathe photos with a caption observing the “de-glamorized” navy uniform “hasn’t made Miss Naomi Parker any less attractive.” The sisters clipped out the photo, which appeared across newspapers and magazines nationwide. Parker-Fraley even received fan mail.
Loy kept a clipping of her sister’s photo after Parker-Fraley moved on from her Navy job in 1943 and the war ended in 1945.
They didn’t know Parker-Fraley’s possible connection to the “We Can Do It!” poster until 2009, when they attended a reunion of “Rosie the Riveters” at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif.
The park museum featured the picture of Parker-Fraley leaning over the lathe and noted it “likely” was the inspiration behind the “We Can Do It!” poster. However, the exhibit identified the woman in the photo as Geraldine Hoff Doyle, not Parker-Fraley.
“When she saw that, she got real upset, she thought, ‘That is me! That’s not the other girl!’ ” Loy said.
“I was overwhelmed just thinking about somebody else ... taking my identity,” added Parker-Fraley, eyes wide.
Loy wrote a letter to the National Park Service and attached three newspaper clippings of the lathe photo with her sister’s name. In 2011, the Park Service thanked Loy for the donation of the clippings. The agency declined to change the exhibit, but it wrote to Loy: “If you can help us identify the true identity of the woman in the photograph, please help us.”
Defeated, the sister dropped the complaint.
There was “nothing we could do,” Marnie Blankenship said.
How the photo was misidentified for decades
So how was the “woman at the lathe” photo misidentified for so long? And what was its connection to the Miller poster?
In 1984, a Michigan woman, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, stumbled on the “woman at the lathe” photograph in a copy of Modern Maturity magazine. The caption said “Rosie the Riveters played a major part in winning the war.” It offered no context or name of the woman in the photo, but Hoff Doyle said she recognized the woman as herself. She, indeed, had looked like the photo’s subject when she was younger: She had similar dark hair and arched eyebrows.
As a 17-year-old in 1942, Hoff Doyle worked for one week in a Michigan metal factory where she recalled a United Press International photographer took her picture.
Yet Hoff Doyle wouldn’t see herself in the “We Can Do It!” poster for years. Miller’s piece, which was commissioned by Westinghouse Co. for internal use in its own factories, didn’t gain national notoriety until the mid-1980s.
In 1994, Hoff Doyle first saw the Miller poster printed on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine, which incorrectly touted the image as “Rosie the Riveter.” Hoff Doyle immediately saw her own likeness in the Westinghouse poster and linked the poster to the lathe photo. “I know what I looked like,” she told Michigan History Magazine in 1994.
The Michigan magazine then repeated her claim that the photo inspired the poster — without evidence to support it other than a tenuous quote from a Smithsonian historian noting “if the photo had appeared recently, he (the artist) might have drawn from it.”
After that article, her story was repeated in countless news articles and blogs — with little evidence to back up Hoff Doyle’s claim other than her own conviction and memory.
“At the time Geraldine Hoff Doyle was incredibly self-promotion minded. She really launched a campaign to dub her the model,” said Penny Colman, historian and author of “Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II.”
In an interview with The Daily News, Colman said Hoff Doyle and her family tried to get her, an expert on the subject, to confirm the Michigan woman as the subject of the poster. She resisted because there wasn’t enough evidence, Colman said.
Yet even as her story was unverified, through sheer repetition and reporting by seemingly authoritative news outlets, her story gradually became accepted as fact, said James J. Kimble, a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, who studied the poster extensively.
The Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame, and the Michigan Senate, all honored Hoff Doyle in 2002, Kimble noted.
When she died in 2010, obituaries in The New York Times, the Washington Post and several international news outlets mourned the loss of the face behind the “We Can Do It!” poster.
Naomi’s identify discovered
From early on, Hoff Doyle’s story struck professor Kimble as odd. How did she know she was the inspiration?, he wondered. So, after co-authoring a 2006 study on the myths behind the Westinghouse poster, he turned his attention to verifying Hoff Doyle’s story. Because the original caption on the “lathe woman” photo had been cut off, there was no way to prove or disprove her claims. For years he poured over hundreds of archival photographs from old magazines, newspapers and books, but the mysterious woman remained nameless in countless iterations.
After five years, he hit a breakthrough. Kimble stumbled on a similar, but different, photo of the same woman in a 1942 Time article about the emerging trend of women wearing pants. Through a reverse image search, he found a Memphis company selling an original copy of the Time photo, plus an original of the famous “woman at the lathe” photo.
When he finally got the old snapshots, the photo’s caption identified the woman as “Miss Naomi Parker” in Alameda, Calif. — not Geraldine Hoff Doyle in Michigan. Armed with her name, Kimble found other archival prints with Parker’s name in captions.
He hired the California Genealogical Society and Library to find her family, thinking he could interview her descendants. To his shock, she was still alive, living with her sister in Redding, Calif., in 2014. He called, and they arranged to meet.
“I was surprised because he said ‘I’ve been looking for you for seven years!’ ” Parker-Fraley recalled.
Who is the woman behind the photo?
Although Parker-Fraley was confirmed to be the woman in the lathe photo, there still is no way to prove that the lathe photo actually inspired J. Howard Miller, who Kimble said died before the poster became historically notable. (Several online articles mistakenly say the graphic artist died much later, because he shares the same name as a news photographer who died in 2005.)
It is not clear whether anyone ever asked the graphic artist about his inspiration for the poster, Colman said.
Miller kept a file of old magazine and newspaper clippings for inspiration, but he also used live models for his work, too, Colman said. The woman at the lathe photo was published in newspapers around the country, including one in Pittsburgh, where Miller lived at the time.
Yet Kimble said he has reviewed some of Miller’s personal files — and he did not find Parker’s image. It is possible he could have been inspired by someone else, Kimble said. Actress Hedy Lamarr looked similar to the woman in Miller’s poster. Her face appeared on the Life magazine cover in June 1942, seven months before Miller’s poster first made its appearance.
Instead Colman speculates the photo was a composite image of many women.
“There were millions and millions of images of women war workers circulating at the time,” and several could have inspired Miller, Colman said.
For Parker-Fraley’s family, the source of the Westinghouse poster isn’t the main focus.
Her daughter-in-law Marnie Blankenship explained: “She said it was all of us, there were many of us that went to the factories and worked, and helped out with the effort, not just me. That’s where she goes in her head. We all did, we all jumped in, we all deserve the same recognition.”
Life after factory work
In 1943, Parker-Fraley did what many female workers did after leaving their factory war jobs: She married and raised a child. Her husband, Joe Wilson Blankenship Sr., and his father ran a business searching for iron shavings in sand on military contracts. When work dried up after the war, he turned to brick masonry and the family bounced around the western United States following work. They settled in Palm Springs in 1955. Over her career, Parker-Fraley served celebrities at the famous “Dollhouse” restaurant in Palm Springs, worked at several nightclubs and then became an ordained minister in the late 1970s.
Born in Oklahoma, Parker-Fraley was from a family of eight children who eventually settled in California. Her only brother, Clyde, was a U.S. Army guard stationed in Germany. The war “destroyed him” and though the term post-traumatic stress disorder hadn’t been invented, Clyde was “in and out of institutions” for the rest of his life, Marnie Blankenship said. He became a chain smoker and died of emphysema in the late 1970s.
Parker-Frlaey divorced Joe Blankenship Sr. around 1958 and was widowed twice. Her second husband, John Muhlig, died in 1971 and her third husband, Charles Fraley, died in 1998.
Last fall, a string of flu viruses and pneumonia sent her in and out of the hospital. Her body grew weak. She lost 30 pounds. In February, her son Joe Blankenship Jr., 73, of Kelso moved his mother and aunt from Redding, Calif., to Longview to better support them.
In April, a doctor diagnosed Parker-Fraley with colon cancer and found it had spread to her liver. Her family said her care costs thousands of dollars, so they launched a GoFundMe page to raise money.
Now she spends most of her days in bed, too weak to do most daily tasks unassisted. She is nearly deaf and struggles to speak, so her family often uses notes scribbled on a portable whiteboard to communicate. Loy lives in the same facility, and she visits daily with her little white dog named Toughy.
A glamour shot of Parker-Fraley at age 95 is taped to the outside of her door. In it, the photographers at People magazine dressed her to look like the Westinghouse poster, even leaving her hairline peeking out from under the red polka-dotted bandanna. She wears red lipstick and a satisfied smile.
She may never know if she was truly Miller’s muse. And as Kimble wrote in his article, perhaps his research didn’t find the Rosie the Riveter, but she certainly was a Rosie the Riveter.
At the very least, Parker-Fraley knows her place in history has finally come to light.