Walking into Dr. James Kimble’s office is like stepping back in time onto the home front of World War II. His walls, covered with numerous Norman Rockwell propaganda posters, is like something out of a museum.
Therefore, it is no wonder why the associate professor of communication chose Rosie the Riveter as his research topic for the Left Conference: Photography and Film Criticism in Lisbon, Portugal.
The Left Conference is dedicated to research on various discourses of leftist movements.
Kimble’s research focuses on “how propaganda appeals and interacts with wartime culture” and how such appeals change over time, specifically in the case of Rosie the Riveter.
“Meeting in Lisbon had the old world ambiance making the conversation richer,” Kimble said.
Kimble shared his research on a panel with two other scholars, one from the U.K. and the other from Argentina.
Kimble’s fascination with WWII propaganda began when he was in graduate school. While at Kansas State University, Kimble took a course on rhetoric of the 1960s, focusing on the Vietnam war. It was there that Kimble’s research first emerged.
Rosie the Riveter “is one of our cultural memories,” Kimble said. “She’s really prominent. We think we know all about her.”
However, as Kimble’s research details, the feminist icon of today was not the original intent.
According to his research, Rosie was corporate propaganda used by Westinghouse, an electrical company, to boost female worker morale toward the war effort. She was to help increase production and limit protests, not increase women’s rights.
“Understandings have changed,” Kimble said. “Symbols are there for people to use as they want. She’s an icon because we can project our own interpretation on her.”
Kimble said that Rosie and most of wartime propaganda embody the saying history is biography. “They tell us about ourselves more than they do about the 1940s,” Kimble said.
During his presentation, Kimble focused on the way that images can transform past their original purpose can be misconstrued.
Once used as propaganda for corporate, right leaning purposes, Rosie has evolved into a symbol of feminine strength and persistence. “She is a good example of principles I try to teach,” Kimble said.
A former student of Kimble’s, Gabriel Fiore, a PR graduate major, said that Kimble often used his own research as examples for his Communication Research class, incorporating the “We Can Do It” theme into the classroom.
Despite her original intentions, the real riveters of the 1940s played an indispensable role in the war effort while fighting against an oppressive system and breaking social norms, Kimble said.
“[Kimble’s] research on Rosie the Riveter truly captures and points out the importance and effectwomen have had, still have, and continue to have in our history,” Fiore said.
The photo may have gained notoriety for feminine empowerment, but Kimble noted in his talk that the picture’s fame is what made it so widely used for various different causes, mostly political.
Leigha Wentz, a diplomacy and international relations and modern languages graduate who had Kimble as a professor for Honors Colloquium, said “she’s not just a symbol of hard work, she is a symbol of what a woman can be, and what she doesn’t need to give up.”
As with his students, Kimble’s ideas were recieved with acceptance and discourse during the conference.
Payton Seda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.