She was Roz, not Rosie

Nevertheless, she was the first inspiration for Rosie the Riveter.

by William McMahon

Rosalind P. Walter was more than an iconoclast—she was a role model, a philanthropist, and a muse. Born to privilege, she chose to serve as a factory worker rather than attend Vassar or Smith to help manufacture aircraft for the troops during World War II. Working the night shift, she drove rivets into the bodies of Corsair fighter jets. She caught the attention of Igor Cassini, who was writing at the time as the society columnist Cholly Knickerbocker, and made her the subject of one of his columns. It inspired Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb to write the song “Rosie the Riveter,” which would become a top hit when recorded by Kay Kyser and The Four Vagabonds. She broke records for speed on the assembly line, and advocated for equal pay for her women co-workers.

The song lyrics expressed her patriotism, dedication and work ethic:

 

All the day long whether rain or shine

she’s a part of the assembly line

She’s making history,

working for victory—

Rosie, brrrrr, the Riveter

Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage

Sitting up there on the fuselage

That little frail can do, more than a male can do—

Rosie, brrrrr, the Riveter.

The song—and Rosie’s persona—then inspired noted illustrators Howard Miller and Norman Rockwell to create posters based on the legend. The Howard Miller version, with the phrase “We Can Do It” and the determined young woman with the upraised, flexed arm and fist was initially less popular than the Norman Rockwell version, which was painted for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Nevertheless, decades later in the 1970s, the Miller version became an icon of the feminist movement, embodying the concept of female empowerment.

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Rosie the Riveter: Credit: 1985.0851.05 (National Museum of American History)

There is some disagreement on whether it was Roz who was the model for Miller’s poster or a young woman named Naomi Parker Fraley, who was photographed in a factory in Alameda, CA, sporting the signature polka-dotted bandanna. But it is clear that the Rosie legend began with the combination of Rosalind P. Walter and the newspaper column that told the story of a 19-year-old woman who chose service to her country over privilege.

 

With her second husband, Henry Glendon Walter Jr., she would establish the Walter Foundation, later known as the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, in 1951. The couple was deeply committed to philanthropy, becoming trustees of the American Museum of Natural History and Long Island University, where her mother had once taught literature and where she would later be awarded an honorary degree.

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Arguably her greatest contribution was her longtime support of WNET; she first became a major donor to programs like Great Performances, American Masters and the PBS News Hour. She was especially drawn to public television as an educational vehicle and felt that its programming helped fill in the gaps for her, as she had never attended college. In recognition of her generosity—she contributed at least $5,000,000 of her own money—PBS appointed her to its board of directors in 1989.

 

Roz’s philanthropy did not stop there. She was a member of the Board of Overseers for the Grenville Baker Boys & Girls Club, the National Committee for Inner City Drug Prevention, and was a Life Trustee of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, RI. She also served on the board of directors of the North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary, contributing to a fund enabling the North Shore Land Alliance to purchase the 28-acre Humes property in Mill Neck, NY. This purchase would help preserve the meadow, freshwater woodlands, and nine structures located there.

 

Rosalind P. Walter passed away on March 4, 2020, at her home in Manhattan. She leaves behind a legacy, an icon, and an example of commitment to the betterment of the lives of others. 

Rosalind Walter: Credit: Joseph Sinnott