Unsung for seven decades, the real Rosie the Riveter was a Bay Area woman named Naomi Parker Fraley.
Over the years, a welter of American women have been identified as the model for Rosie, the female war worker of 1940s popular culture who became a feminist touchstone in the late 20th century.
Fraley, who died Saturday at 96 in Longview, Wash., turns out to have staked one of the most legitimate claims of all. But because her claim was eclipsed by that of another woman, she went unrecognized for more than 70 years.
“I didn’t want fame or fortune,” Fraley told People magazine in 2016, when her connection to Rosie was first made public. “But I did want my own identity.”
The search for the real Rosie is the story of one scholar’s six-year intellectual treasure hunt. It is also the story of the construction — and deconstruction — of an American legend, and of the power of the mass media in perpetuating it.
“It turns out that almost everything we think about Rosie the Riveter is wrong,” James J. Kimble, the scholar in question, told the Omaha World-Herald in 2016. “Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.”
For Kimble, the quest for Rosie, which began in earnest in 2010, was “an interest that developed into a real deep curiosity that became an obsession,” as he explained in an interview for this obituary in 2016.
His painstaking work ultimately homed in on Fraley, who had worked in a Navy machine shop during World War II, as a highly likely candidate.
It also ruled out the best-known incumbent, Geraldine Hoff Doyle, a Michigan woman whose innocent assertion that she was Rosie was widely accepted for years.
On Doyle’s death in 2010, that assertion was promulgated even more widely through obituaries, including one in the New York Times.
Kimble, an associate professor of communication and the arts at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, reported his findings in “Rosie’s Secret Identity,” an article in the journal Rhetoric & Public Affairs in the summer of 2016.
The article brought journalists to Fraley’s door at long last.
“The women of this country these days need some icons,” Fraley said in the People magazine interview. “If they think I’m one, I’m happy about that.”
The third of eight children of Joseph Parker, a mining engineer, and the former Esther Leis, a homemaker, Naomi Fern Parker was born in Tulsa, Okla., on Aug. 26, 1921. The family moved wherever Joseph Parker’s work took them, living in New York, Missouri, Texas, Washington, Utah and California, where they settled in Alameda.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 20-year-old Naomi and her 18-year-old sister, Ada, went to work at the Naval Air Station in Alameda, among the first of some 3,000 women to do war work there. The sisters were assigned to the machine shop, where their duties included drilling, patching airplane wings and, fittingly, riveting.
It was there that the Acme photographer captured Naomi Parker, her hair done up in a bandanna for safety, at her lathe. She clipped the photo from the newspaper and kept it for decades.
After the war, she worked as a waitress at the Doll House, a restaurant in Palm Springs popular with Hollywood stars. She married and had a family.
In 2011, Fraley and her sister attended a reunion of female war workers at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond. There, prominently displayed, was a photo of the woman at the lathe — captioned as Geraldine Doyle.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Fraley told The Oakland Tribune in 2016. “There was another person’s name under my identity. But I knew it was actually me in the photo.”
She wrote to the National Park Service, which administers the site. In reply, she received a letter saying that the image had already been identified as Doyle. The letter went on to ask for Fraley’s help in determining “the true identity of the woman in the photograph.”
“As one might imagine,” Kimble wrote in his 2016 article, Fraley “was none too pleased to find that her identity was under dispute.”