Rockwell, who painted from photographs, turned the slim, petite young woman into a powerful symbol of the women holding down the home front during World War II. The painting depicts her as one of the war’s many female machinists, working in a factory during the war effort. Rosie, posed against the stars and stripes, is holding a sandwich in one hand and a rivet gun on her lap, and is stepping on a copy of Mein Kampf. The image, which appeared on the May 29, 1943, cover of the Saturday Evening Post, instantly became a symbol of feminism and female power.
Rockwell took liberties with Keefe’s physique—he made her appear much larger and more muscular than she really was. Decades later, he sent her a letter apologizing for the interpretation.
Rockwell’s Rosie is not the same as the woman on the famous motivational poster “We Can Do It!”—though they were produced in the same year and both feature female be-kerchiefed machine operators flashing buff biceps. (That poster made a recent appearance in an episode of The Mindy Project, hanging over Mindy’s bed—though Mindy thinks it’s a poster of Taylor Swift.)
Rockwell’s painting was used to sell war bonds, a point of pride for Keefe. “I didn’t think much about it, and I didn’t really see myself as some epitome of the modern woman,” she told the Hartford Courant in 2012.
Nonetheless, the painting remains the iconic image of female power, 72 years later. World War II was a unique time in the history of feminism: Women entered the workforce in droves, assisted by state-subsidized child care. The end of the war returned the ladies to the domestic sphere, where they remained, with varying degrees of happiness and satisfaction, until Betty Friedan launched a new women’s movement with The Feminine Mystique in 1963.
The painting sold for $4.9 million in 2002, and now resides at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Keefe, whose husband died in 2003, had four children, 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.