Geraldine Doyle; inspired Rosie the Riveter poster

Geraldine Doyle with Rosie the Riveter in Lansing, Mich. Geraldine Doyle with Rosie the Riveter in Lansing, Mich. (Robert Killips/State Journal)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post / December 31, 2010

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Geraldine Doyle, who as a 17-year-old factory worker became the inspiration for a popular World War II recruitment poster that evoked female power and independence under the slogan “We Can Do It!,’’ died Dec. 26 at a hospice in Lansing, Mich. She was 86.

Her daughter, Stephanie Gregg, said the cause of death was complications from severe arthritis.

For millions of Americans throughout the decades since World War II, the stunning brunette in the red and white polka-dot bandanna was Rosie the Riveter.

Rosie’s rolled-up sleeves and flexed right arm came to represent the newfound strength of the 18 million women who worked during the war and later made her a figure of the feminist movement.

But the woman in the patriotic poster was never named Rosie, nor was she a riveter. All along it was Mrs. Doyle, who after graduating from high school in Ann Arbor, Mich., took a job at a metal factory, her family said.

One day, a photographer for United Press International came to her factory and captured Mrs. Doyle leaning over a piece of machinery and wearing a red and white polka-dot bandanna over her hair.

In early 1942, the Westinghouse Corp. commissioned artist J. Howard Miller to produce several morale-boosting posters to be displayed inside its buildings. The project was funded by the government as a way to motivate workers and perhaps recruit new ones for the war effort.

Smitten with the UPI photo, Miller was said to have decided to base one of his posters on the anonymous, slender metal worker.

For four decades, this fact escaped Mrs. Doyle, who shortly after the photo was taken left her job at the factory. She barely lasted two weeks.

A cellist, Mrs. Doyle was horrified to learn that a previous worker at the factory had badly injured her hands working at the machines. She found safer employment at a soda fountain and bookshop in Ann Arbor, where she met a young dental school student she would marry.

In 1984, Mrs. Doyle and her family came across an article in Modern Maturity magazine, a former AARP publication, that connected her UPI photo with Miller’s wartime poster.

The artist did take some liberties with Mrs. Doyle’s physique, her family said.

“She didn’t have those big muscles,’’ said her daughter Stephanie Gregg of Eaton Rapids, Mich. “She was busy playing cello.’’

According to her family, the original photo of Mrs. Doyle was featured on the cover of the 1986 Time-Life book “The Patriotic Tide: 1940-1950.’’

“You’re not supposed to have too much pride, but I can’t help have some in that poster,’’ Mrs. Doyle told the Lansing State Journal in 2002. “It’s just sad I didn’t know it was me sooner.’’

Geraldine Hoff was born in Inkster, Mich., and grew up in Ann Arbor, where her father was an electrician.

Her husband of 66 years, Leo H. Doyle, died in February. A son, Gary Doyle, died in 1980.

In addition to her daughter Stephanie, Mrs. Doyle leaves four children, Jacqueline Drewes of Eaton Rapids, Mich., Brian Doyle of Holt, Mich., Deidre Doyle of Fort Myers, Fla., Lauretta Doyle of Hollandale, Wis.; a brother; a sister; 18 grandchildren; and 25 great-grandchildren.

The “We Can Do It!’’ poster was scheduled to be displayed in Westinghouse facilities for only two weeks in February 1942. But as time passed, it took on a whole new life.

In the early 1940s, Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb composed the song “Rosie the Riveter.’’

Simple lyrics helped the tune become a staple on radio stations coast-to-coast: “All day long whether rain or shine, she’s part of the assembly line. She’s making history, working for victory, Rosie the Riveter.’’

After the song had become popular, the May 29, 1943, edition of the Saturday Evening Post cover featured a Norman Rockwell illustration of a muscular, red-headed riveter with the name Rosie painted on her lunch pail.

From then on, many people began to associate the hardworking female factory employee with the name “Rosie,’’ and so the title stuck to Miller’s poster.

Several women claimed to be the “real’’ Rosie the Riveter, including Rose Monroe, an aircraft parts worker who appeared in a propaganda film promoting war bonds.

In the decades since the poster’s creation, the image has evolved into a pop culture reference that generated scores of imitations.

In 1999, the US Postal Service issued a stamp based on the “We Can Do It!’’ poster.

For years, Mrs. Doyle made appearances in Michigan to sign posters, until her arthritis made her dependent on a wheelchair and unable to write.

While many people profited from the “Rosie the Riveter’’ image, Mrs. Doyle often said she never made a penny from it because she was too busy tending to her family and “changing diapers all the time.’’