Cerebral Tie-Dye World

How One Man And One Woman Changed Middle-Class America

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Visual aids have long been used to capture the attention of the audience and spread messages, subliminal or apparent. Smart and simple visual aids have often been used effectively to propagate information and sway public opinion. Figures and monuments of the nationalistic importance on the currency or the wartime posters during the World Wars are great examples of this.

However, from among these, 2 prominent posters, ones of ‘Uncle Sam’ and ‘Rosie the Riveter’ became more than just the messages, they become vehicles for the social upheaval of the American middle class.

Let me paint you a picture.

It’s 1900 in the United States of America…

And the country has just become an industrial superpower, with a majority of the middle class working in factories, mills and mines. Patriotism was not a household American value, instead, it was every man for himself, earning his daily wage and feeding his family. When the First World War broke out in Europe, Americans remained largely unperturbed by the tremors across the Pacific. Nationalism wasn’t popular amongst the masses who largely cared about their daily lives or their representation in the society.

That changed after President Woodrow Wilson decided to side the allies in the WWI.

It’s now 1916…

The First World War has broken out, but  USA’s position is still neutral, and getting involved in a foreigner’s war was frowned upon (I know, surprising considering what their stance on this seems to be today). However, as soon as Germany’s submarine attack sunk the American streamliner Lusitania, this opinion changed and the USA joined the war on the side of the allies. However, the American Army lacked the numbers and supplies required to sustain their position in the war. America needed a mascot to instill enough patriotism that citizens would be willing to leave their jobs and families to join a war, which was taking place on another continent.

One Year Into The First World War…

The American Government tried consistently to instill patriotism in the masses with public meetings, movies, songs, rallies, etc. They even got their soldiers to run recruitment campaigns, tell young men about the honor of joining the war. But none of this worked to the extent it needed to. That changed in 1917 when artist James Montgomery Flagg became part of the advertising campaign started by President Woodrow Wilson under the newly created Committee of Public Information (CPI). He created Uncle Sam’s ‘I WANT YOU’ poster to get the American youth to enlist in the U.S. Army. This poster was an artistic masterpiece and proved to be an instant hit amongst the masses. It was so popular that it was reused again in during the WWII and for the two wars combined recruited nearly 10 million American men to the war.

The reason for the huge success of this poster is in its simplicity and the smart design. ‘Uncle Sam’ was a popular and likable historic figure, with his star-spangled, blue and red robes proudly displaying the American spirit. His name induced familiarity, he was an ‘Uncle’ to every American (even his initials were the same as the country’s), someone you respect but also someone would listen to. His serious face gave away a ‘no-nonsense’ vibe. His pointed finger pointed at ‘YOU’ as not aimed at a general audience, it was aimed individually at every American, enlisting them of help and making them feel part of the cause.

That’s what the men were doing. Here’s what the women were up to…

American society viewed women as stay-at-home mothers, caretakers and food providers. They assumed a secondary position in the family. While some of them worked, it wasn’t glorified or even seen as a substantial contribution towards the society. The stereotypical woman was seen as a person who serves the man hot dinner after his long day at work and takes care of the children while he worked. That image was shattered during the WWII.

America joins the Second World War…

During the Second World War, women supported the war-efforts by working as the nurses for the wounded abroad, and the caretakers of the veterans at home. But because the men were away at war, someone needed to fill their spots in the factories, mills and mines, even more so now that these heavy industries were also helping in the war effort. This was achieved by ‘Rosie the Riveter’.

In contrast to the stern and old, ‘Uncle Sam’ was friendlier and more encouraging in her approach. With a bandana tying her hair up and, flexing her muscles, declaring ‘WE CAN DO IT’, Rosie’s call was all that was needed for women across all the socio-economic classes to contribute help to the nation and join the workforce. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ symbolized the temporary taking up of labor jobs to support the nation.

This campaign of the government was so successful that by 1944, half of the adult American women were employed, and one in 5 defense workers were women. Like Rosie, they took up masculine roles but remained feminine in her actions, even applying make-up while working in factories.

Further emboldened by their work during the war, women could now argue their capacity for labor and ask for higher wages and positions with more responsibility.

Once the War was over…

By 1955, more women were employed than they were during the WWII. A survey taken immediately after WWII by the Bureau of Women Workers revealed that 75% of women workers preferred to remain employed outside their homes. This shows the impact the campaigns of ‘Rosie’ had on women, which made them realize their own potential and interests.

Today…

‘Rosie’ and ‘Uncle Sam’ are household names in America even today. Rosie the Riveter has gone on to become one of the most prominent symbols of the Feminist movement, not only in the United States but around the world and her simple tagline, ‘WE CAN DO IT’ has become a stomp of defiance against those who put limits a woman’s capabilities. It’s thanks to her that middle-class women feel empowered to do anything they want. Meanwhile, ‘Uncle Sam’ has made U.S. citizens feel a sense of nationalism that has stood the test of time. He’s perhaps the reason the U.S. can successfully fight so many long and tedious wars around the world even today. Being a veteran in the U.S. is given the utmost importance, they have the largest army in the world and get thousands of more recruits every year.

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