Thursday, April 23, 2015

Appreciating A Riveting Icon

This week brought news of the death of Mary Doyle Keefe, a 92 year old woman living in Simsbury, CT.

Keefe's name may not be instantly recognizable, but she contributed as a life model to an iconic image in 20th-century US history.

A 19 year old telephone operator, Keefe agreed to model for Norman Rockwell during his years living in southwestern Vermont.   The finished portrait appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, a publication widely read in that era.  Appropriately, the cover art appeared on the Memorial Day issue for May 29, 1943.  The original painting was sold by Sotheby's in 2002 to a privately held collection.

Rockwell's art is virtually synonymous with the magazine.  His rendering of Keefe as the hardworking, industrious woman stepping up during the height of WWII celebrates as much as it demonstrates the smashing of long-held gender bias about what is really the scope of "woman's work".   

The Rockwell image is often confused with another famous image, celebrating much the same spirit and tenacity.  Arguably this other image ("We Can Do It!", rendered by J. Howard Miller and commissioned by the Westinghouse Company for propaganda purposes) has far much pop culture use, and some folks confused the Rockwell/Keefe image with the "We Can Do It!" one.

The Miller/Westinghouse image appears in posters, refrigerator magnets and adorns the walls of people born long after WWII who take inspiration from the courage, strength and determination exuding from the "can do" spirit of its subject.  This image actually predates the Rockwell image by a year, and certainly images of "Rosie the Riveter" abound in multiple forms.   (See the article summary on Wikipedia via: 

The women who embodied the "Rosie the Riveter" experience were largely European American women.  Racial/ethnic minority women were not as able to find this work, due to the discriminatory practices of the time.  After WWII, many of the real life "Rosies" found that their jobs were finished, now that men were home from war, looking for work again.

Today, Rosie the Riveter remains a symbol of women's contributions and potential (even if intermittently recognized).  Our society still encodes overt and covert ways of promoting gender roles that inhibit more than empower.  The economic impact of women earning often only 70% of what men would earn in the same position is deeply scandalous and unsettling. 

So we must continue to lift up images like the one of Mary Doyle Keefe, as decades later, Rockwell's rendering of her still resounds as a stirring image of strength and fortitude.  Keefe gave generations and will continue to give to generations yet to come a powerful image of what women can do in the midst of a world that needs the fullness of their gifts, talents and tenacity.

Rest in peace, Mary Doyle Keefe.  Rosie's still with us.  AMEN.

A news story covering Keefe's life:

Keefe's time with Rockwell was brief.  She was photographed in the pose by one of Rockwell's assistants.  She earned just a few dollars for her time.  A number of "Rockwell life models" were sourced from around the area where Rockwell lived at the time (Arlington, Vermont), though understandably, most of these models are now quite elderly or have passed away in recent years.  A reunion is sometimes held for the life models to return to Arlington on occasion.  During my years in Vermont, I met an African American woman who appeared as a child along with her brother in the famous Rockwell "United Nations" mural.  Here's a fascinating look at the conservation efforts to keep Rockwell's art conserved for future generations:

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