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Feminism: From patronising women to empowering them: history through one image

Updated: Apr 14, 2023

Who isn’t familiar with the poster below:

And yet…

Here’s a poster which has a strange and quite circumvoluted history… to say the least!

Originally produced in 1943 for Westinghouse Electric, an American company then engaged in the war effort, it was used internally solely to boost employees’ morale. Contrary to what is often assumed, then, it never circulated outside Westinghouse Electric, and it never was a propaganda poster widely used to encourage women to join the war effort either. In fact, the company never used it even to recruit female workers, as it was only targeted to those already employed.

Interestingly, and contrary to what most people might assume too, it never was about valuing women at all. It was, on the contrary, about… keeping them toeing the line! If you know this poster only through its contemporary interpretation, then: what. the. heck?!

Well, all throughout the 1930s in the USA, there had been clashes between management and labour unions across several industries, and these disputes carried well over into the 1940s. In the 1940s, though, they became clearly unacceptable, as they were a threat to the war effort. Absenteeism, labour unrest, or, worse, strikes, could not be tolerated anymore. Here’s how Westinghouse Electric, then, came up with such internal posters emphasising the idea that management and its workforce ought not to be alienated against each other, but, on the contrary, must work together (‘we’) serving a common patriotic goal.

Empowering its female staff? They couldn’t care less.

In fact, the series to which the poster belongs was everything but conveying empowerment. It was a form of paternalistic management style patronising of employees. It was, also, fully adhering to traditional gender roles. In another poster of the same series and by the same company, for example, female staff were reminded that, if they had an issue, they should go and seek help from their supervisor; the supervisor in question being, of course... (wait for it...) an all-knowing man!

'Empowering its female staff? They couldn’t care less.'

As the war passed, the poster was forgotten. It was only to be re-discovered in 1982, when it appeared in an article in The Washington Post. A new generation of women, a new era, a whole new context led it then to being re-used to convey a whole new narrative. And, indeed, when stripped of the context in which it emerged to be looked at on its own, there is something very powerful about this image, a strong and determined woman, rolling up her sleeve and showing her biceps as a man would, clenched fist, doing what was then a traditionally man’s job anyway, her body language and facial expression seeming as resolute as the feminists who used it ever since in fighting for gender equality and empowerment (posters about her supervisors, of course, had been discarded as was the patriarchy itself...).

And so it was, then, that the ‘We Can Do It!’ poster, which was, originally, paternalistic, patronising, controlling, and sexist, came to be revamped to become, on the contrary, one of the most popular images promoting exactly the opposite of what it purported to be that is, empowerment, liberation, and women’s rights! An image worth thousand words, and these words can spell whatever spin you put on it.

Propaganda? Propaganda surrounds us! Beware of the popular images you see peddled in the mass medias...

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