A polished version of this post was published in Contexts. You can download it here.

Most of our readers are probably familiar  with the now-iconic “We Can Do It!” poster associated with Rosie the Riveter and the movement of women into the paid industrial workforce during World War II:

It is, by this point, so recognizable that it is often parodied or appropriated for a variety of uses (including selling household cleaners). The image is widely seen as a symbol of women’s empowerment and a sign of major gender transformations that occurred during the 1940s.

In their article, “Visual Rhetoric Representing Rosie the Riveter: Myth and Misconception in J. Howard Miller’s ‘We Can Do It!’ Poster,” James Kimble and Lester Olson argue that our current interpretations of the poster don’t necessarily align with how it was seen at the time.

While the poster is often described as a government recruiting item (Kimble and Olson give many examples in the article of inaccurate attributions from a variety of sources), it was, in fact, created by J. Howard Miller as part of a series of posters for the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company — the Westinghouse logo is clearly visible just under the woman’s arm, and the badge on her shirt collar is the badge employees wore on the plant floor, including an employee number. The War Production Co-ordinating Committee was an internal Westinghouse committee, similar to those created by many companies during the war, not a government entity.

The assumption of current viewers of the image is usually that it was meant to recruit women into the workforce, or to rally women in general — an early example of girl power marketing, if you will — and was widely displayed. But the audience was actually only Westinghouse employees. The company commissioned artists to create posters to be hung in Westinghouse plants for specific periods of time; this poster specifically says, “Post Feb. 15 to Feb. 28” [1943] in small font on the lower left. There’s no evidence that it was ever made available to the public more broadly. For that matter, the poster doesn’t identify her as “Rosie,” and it’s not clear that at the time she would have been immediately identifiable to viewers as “Rosie the Riveter”.

The image that was more widely seen, and is often conflated with the “We Can Do It!” poster, was Norman Rockwell’s May 29, 1943, cover for the Saturday Evening Post:

Here, the woman is clearly linked to the idea of Rosie the Riveter, through both the name on her lunchbox and the  equipment she’s holding. She is more muscular than the woman in Miller’s poster, she’s dirty, and her foot is standing on a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Rockwell’s image presents the woman as a vital part of the war effort; her work helps defeat the Nazis. The image also includes fewer details to make her look conventionally attractive than Miller’s, where the woman has emphasized eyelashes and visibly painted fingernail.

Most interestingly, Kimble and Olson question the female empowerment message presumed to be the point of the “We Can Do It!” poster. We see the poster on its own, through the lens of a narrative about World War II in which housewives left the kitchen in droves to work in factories. But Westinghouse workers would have seen it in a different context, as one of a series of posters displayed in the plant, with similar imagery and text. When seen as just one in a series, rather than a unique image, Kimble and Olson argue that the collective “we” in “We can do it!” wouldn’t have been women, but Westinghouse employees, who were used to seeing such statements posted in employee-access-only areas of the plant.

Of course, having a woman represent a default factory employee is noteworthy. But our reading of the poster as a feminist emblem partially rests on the idea that this female worker is calling out encouragement to other women. The authors, however, point out a much less empowering interpretation if you think of the poster not in terms of feminism, but in terms of social class and labor relations:

…Westinghouse used “We Can Do It!” and Miller’s other posters to encourage women’s cooperation with the company’s relatively conservative concerns and values at a time when both labor organizing and communism were becoming active controversies for many workers… (p. 537)

…by addressing workers as “we,” the pronoun obfuscated sharp controversies within labor over communism, red-baiting, discrimination, and other heartfelt sources of divisiveness. (p. 550)

One of the major functions of corporate war committees was to manage labor and discourage any type of labor disputes that might disrupt production. From this perspective, images of happy workers expressing support for the war effort and/or workers’ abilities served as propaganda that encouraged workers to identify with one another and management as a team; “patriotism could be invoked to circumvent strikes and characterize workers’ unrest as un-American” (p. 562).

And, as Kimble and Olson illustrate, most of Miller’s posters included no women at all, and when they did, emphasized conventional femininity and the domestic sphere (such as a heavily made-up woman waving to her husband as he left for work).

Of course, today the “We Can Do It!” poster is seen as a feminist icon, adorning coffee cups, t-shirts, calendars, and refrigerator magnets (I have one). Kimble and Olson don’t explain when and how this shift occurred — when the image went from an obscure piece of corporate war-time propaganda, similar to many others, to a widely-recognized pop cultural image of female empowerment. But they make a convincing argument that our current perceptions of the image involve a significant amount of historical myth-making that helps to obscure the discrimination and opposition many women faced in the paid workforce even during the height of the war effort.

[The article appears in Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9(4): 533-570, 2006.]

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Dr. Grumpy re-tells the fascinating story of the importation of camels to North America for use as beasts of burden.  He begins:

Following the Mexican-American war, the United States found itself in control of a large desert, covering what’s now New Mexico & Arizona, and parts of Texas, California, and several other states. The U.S. Army needed to establish bases and supply lines in the area, both for the border with Mexico and the continuing wars with Indian tribes.

The railroad system was in it’s infancy, and there were no tracks through the area… The only way across was to use horses. But horses, like humans, are heavily dependent on water. This made the area difficult to cross, and vulnerable to attacking Apaches.

And so in 1855 Jefferson Davis, then U.S. Secretary of War (later to become President of the Confederacy during the Civil War), put into action an idea proposed by several officers: buy camels to serve in the desert. Congress appropriated $30,000 for the endeavor, and officials were sent to Turkey to do just that.

The next year they imported somewhere between 62 and 73 camels and, with them, 8 camel drivers all led by a man named Hadji Ali. Enter the U.S. Army Camel Corps.

Camels at an Army Fort:


Illustration of camels in camp:


Camels on the go (1850s):


Says Dr. Grumpy:

They led supply trains all over, from Texas to California…

But there were problems. The Americans had envisioned combined forces of camels and horses, each making up for the deficiencies of the other. But horses and donkeys are frightened of camels, making joint convoys difficult and requiring separate corrals. The army was also unprepared for their intrinsically difficult personalities- camels bite, spit, kick, and are short-tempered. Horses are comparatively easy to handle.

Then came the start of the American Civil War, which focused military attention to the east. With troops pulled out of the American desert, and horses better suited to the eastern terrain, the camels were abandoned.   Though Weird CA suggests that they were used in the war, Dr. Grumpy reports that most simply escaped into the desert.  For a time, there was a wild camel population in the U.S.

Meanwhile, a former-solider and Canadian gold prospector, Frank Laumeister, figured that camels would be great pack animals for his new line of work. He bought a herd in 1862, but they didn’t work out so well in the rockier terrain. Plus:

The Canadians, like the Americans, discovered they weren’t easy to handle. The same problems of difficult disposition and spooking horses came up. In addition, they found camels would eat anything they found. Hats. Shoes. Clothes that were out drying. Even soap. And so, after a few years, the Canadians gave up on the experiment, too.

Laumeister on one of his camels:

Our original head camel driver, Hadji Ali, eventually got out of the camel business, but he never left America. He became a citizen in 1880, married a woman named Gertrudis Serna and had two children. He died in Arizona in 1902, having spent 51 years of his life in the U.S. You’ll find his tombstone in Quartzsite, Arizona labeled with the name “Hi Jolly,” the Americanized pronunciation of his full name.


The last sighting of a wild camel in North America was in 1941 near Douglas, Texas (source).

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

“It was kind of unreal,” the Steamboat Springs, Colorado native said, describing his recent 34th birthday fete at Kandahar Airfield, better known as KAF. “At least for a few minutes, you could pretend you were somewhere else. It was like going back home” (source).

“I was expecting to arrive in a warzone but instead here I am wearing sunglasses in the sun and eating a baguette,” said Dimitra Kokkali, a NATO contractor newly arrived from Brussels. “On my first night I surprised my family by calling them from an outdoor rock concert” (source).

Time magazine slideshow, titled “R&R at Kandahar Airfield,” uses images to describe how the busiest airport in the world “tries to re-create the comforts of home for the coalition forces in Afgahnistan.” Kandahar Airfield is the busiest airport in the world because all supplies and troops pass through on their way to or from war in Iraq or Afghanistan. At any given time there are about 25,000 service members and civilian contractors at the airfield.

These images of the Kandahar’s “Boardwalk” recreation area are striking for a few reasons. First, they show a blurring of the line dividing the homefront and the warfront. The slide show includes images of service members using FaceBook in computer labs, and eating meals in their fatigues at TGI Fridays.

Second, these images reflect that there is increasing emphasis on how service members are supported and cared for by the military during wartime. These photos show the side of war that is not about fighting and danger—instead, they are about the comfort and making a foreign land where they are fighting as “homelike” as possible.

Third, these show the blurring of the boundary between the military and privately owned businesses. Civilian Contractors are augmenting military personnel during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the inclusion of these civilian contractors in war zones has raised the issues of the safety of civilian workers and the costs of hiring corporations (Contexts).

Finally, as a consequence of the blurring of the boundaries of homefront and warfront, the division between the country of Afghanistan and the military is sharpened. Afghanis (except for those few with security clearance) are not allowed to shop or enjoy the free entertainment on the Boardwalk at Kandahar.  Meanwhile, service members can safely buy souvenirs on the Boardwalk itself.  Afghani culture is commodified as a tourist attraction in this theme park-like Boardwalk setting.

All of these images speak to the changing boundary between the homefront and the warfront, and as a result, changes in how we, as a country, view war. Instead of the images of brutality, death, and chaos that Americans saw in their living rooms on TV during Vietnam, for example, these images show the military taking care of service members who are being entertained, keeping in touch with loved ones, and having fun.

But as this service member describes, walking the Kandahar “Boardwalk” in a warzone is still a jarring experience:

“I couldn’t believe I was in Kandahar eating a double-dipped chocolate ice cream at sunset on a Saturday afternoon,” said Coleman, who was downing a strawberry smoothie from the French bakery behind him, where an Eiffel Tower climbs a wall above picnic tables with fake potted plants.

“It was a surreal experience,” he said, as a jet fighter roared across the sky, letting loose a stream of defensive white flares. “I remember thinking, ‘We’re in the heart of the war-zone. The bad guys are 10 miles away. And here we are eating soft-serve ice cream'” (source).

Wendy Christensen is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College whose specialty includes the intersection of gender,war, and the media.

I saw this ad last year but forgot to post it. What I find interesting is the way that “peace” has been both stripped of any real meaning and presented as something easy to achieve:

So while a plaid shirt might cost you $44.50, peace is free. This makes sense only if “peace” has been turned into a completely apolitical feel-good abstraction, as opposed to an end result of social and political processes that require effort and may or may not be particularly cheap. But “peace” is, here, entirely empty of political meaning, so much so that the company could use the word in an ad without worrying that they would be accused of making a political statement about, say, either of the two wars the U.S. is currently engaged in, or the Israel/Palestine conflict, or any number of other situations that a politicized meaning of peace might bring to mind.

(NOTE: I am writing this post on January 2nd, 2010… almost a year before it will publish.  As I write it… I wonder if the wars in Iraq and Afganistan will still be ongoing.)

Last year Christmastime, Gin and Tacos highlighted this Walmart commercial:

He writes:

That commercial has nothing to do with Wal-Mart. It tells you nothing about its products, services, prices, or policies. It’s just sentimental pap, a cheap effort to bypass logic and score points on an emotional level.

Indeed, Walmart is attempting to associate its company with the admiration inspired by those risking their lives in war.  Why this doesn’t result in a strong and consequential backlash is lost on me.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The NYT has posted an interesting interactive map showing the results of the last slave Census taken in the U.S., in 1860, which I discovered via Jessica Brown and Jim Yocom. The map, which shows county-level data, illustrates how slave ownership varied throughout the South

The shading (a new technique at the time, according to the NYT article) indicates what percent of the entire county’s population was enslaved:

You can see the percentage for each county, which is listed on the map, more easily if you zoom in on the pdf version. The cotton-belt area along the Mississippi River clearly stands out, as does Beaufort County, South Carolina, all with over 80% of the population enslaved. The highest rate I could pick out (the map got a little blurry as I zoomed) is in Issaquena County, Mississippi, where slaves appear to have made up 92.5% of the population.

The map also included information on the overall population and % enslaved at the state level; in South Carolina and Mississippi, over half of the total state population was made up of slaves:

Also check out Lisa’s post on geology, the economy, and the concentration of slavery in the U.S.

As the NYT post points out, the map doesn’t show the dramatic increases in slavery in some areas. For instance, while Texas ranked fairly low in terms of the overall slave population, the number of slaves in the state had tripled between 1850 and 1860. The number had doubled in Mississippi between 1840 and 1860. Those growth rates make it rather hard to swallow the argument sometimes presented by those romanticizing the Confederacy that slavery was actually on the wane and would have soon been ended in the South anyway, without any need for federal interference, and wasn’t why the South seceded at all.

Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore discussed this effort to frame discourses about the Civil War to erase the issue of slavery on The Daily Show:

The illuminating 3:49 minute video below, borrowed from Michael Shaw’s BagNews, features photographs taken by New York Times photojournalist Mike Kamber while he was embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. Narrating the images, Kamber discusses the censoring of his photos by the U.S. and the ethics of documentary photography.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

One of the things that continually stuns me about the U.S. wars against Iraq and Afghanistan is how little the average American is expected to sacrifice. Yes, many Americans are losing loved ones in this war. Other than those immeasurable sacrifices, however, most Americans are not asked to change a thing about their lives.

In contrast, during World War II, Americans were asked to make significant sacrifices, changing their daily lives and consumption patterns. Carpooling, for example, to save gas and rubber and staying off the phones.

Vintage Ads posted another great example of government propaganda encouraging the average person to change their lives for the war effort. In this case, the propaganda is British and they implore citizens not to waste food:

U.S. propaganda and advertising similarly encouraged citizens (i.e., women) to save food and stretch their rations (both from 1943):

Images also found at Vintage Ads: here, and here.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.