The real Rosie the Riveter, Naomi Parker Fraley, dies at 96

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The woman believed to be the “real” Rosie the Riveter died Saturday at age 96, according to her daughter-in-law Marnie Blankenship.

Naomi Parker Fraley was the inspiration for Rosie the Riveter, a poster that became an enduring symbol of American feminism and one of the country’s most iconic images.

The poster, by the Pittsburgh artist J Howard Miller, depicted a wartime woman worker in a blue shirt and a red polka-dot bandanna, flexing her biceps, with the caption “We Can Do It!”. Miller’s poster is thought to have been based on a photograph of a woman standing at a machine tool which was published by a number of magazines in 1943 but seemingly never captioned with a name or a date.

Mr Miller’s poster went largely unnoticed at the time – it was displayed only in-house at Westinghouse electric plants – but it became an icon decades later, printed on everything from T-shirts to fridge magnets to skin, and reimagined by the singer Beyonce, the New Yorker magazine and others.

But as the image became ubiquitous, Parker Fraley went unknown. Another woman, Geraldine Doyle, a wartime metal presser at a Michigan industrial plant, thought she saw herself in the original photograph and her claim was widely accepted.

When Doyle died in December 2010, obituaries were published by the New York Times, and many others.

But something about the story did not sit right with James Kimble, an associate professor of communication at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. He had previously researched the poster and published a paper debunking some of the myths around it.

“I had said in that research that almost everything we know about that poster is wrong,” Mr Kimble told the BBC in a telephone interview. “So when Doyle died in 2010, and there were all these obituaries, I of course thought, how do we know she’s really the model? What’s the proof? It was the rabbit hole calling to me.”

For six years, Mr Kimble scoured the internet, magazines, and wire services, searching for a version of the image with a caption. Then in 2015, he found another image of Parker Fraley, and via a reverse image search traced it to a vintage newspaper picture dealer.

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It just so happened the dealer had a companion image from the same day, and it was the one. More importantly, it had a date – 24 March 1942 – a location – Alameda, California – and a caption.

“Pretty Naomi Parker looks like she might catch her nose in the turret lathe she is operating,” it said. The women wore “safety clothes instead of feminine frills”, it added, “And the girls don’t mind – they’re doing their part. Glamour is secondary these days.”

Naomi Parker was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in August 1921. She was the third of eight children to Joseph Parker, a mining engineer, and Esther Leis, a homemaker. The family moved from town to town, following mining work, before settling in Alameda.

In 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, 20-year-old Naomi went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda alongside her 18-year-old sister Ada. It was in the workshop there that she was captured, by a photographer for the Acme photo agency, leaning over the machinery.

When the picture appeared shortly after alongside an article in the Oakland Post-Enquirer, Parker Fraley carefully cut out the article and kept it for 70 years, while the world misidentified Doyle in her place.

After the war, Naomi and Ada worked as waitresses at a famous Palm Springs restaurant, the Doll House. She went through two marriages and two divorces before marrying Charley Fraley, a brick mason, in 1979. Then after Charles died in 1998, the sisters moved in together in California.

Parker Fraley had seen the famous poster – “I did think it looked like me,” she said later in an interview with People Magazine – but she did not connect it to the newspaper photograph stored away among her keepsakes.

Then in 2011, at a reunion event for female wartime workers, Parker Fraley for the first time saw the poster displayed alongside the photograph. The woman in the photograph, according to the information alongside, was one Geraldine Doyle.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she told the Oakland Tribune in 2016. “I knew it was actually me in the photo.”

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