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Naomi Parker-Fraley — the real-life inspiration behind the Rosie the Riveter poster
09/07/2016 AT 12:20 PM EDT
Knowing that she was one of more than 6 million women who entered the workforce during World War II, she figured she was far from alone in seeing herself in the image that has become a symbol of modern feminism.
Then, in 2009, Parker-Fraley, now 95, and her sister Ada Wyn Parker-Loy, now 92, were at a reunion at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park when they noticed a photograph of Parker-Fraley proudly displayed as the likely inspiration behind the poster – then they read the caption.
“I couldn’t believe it because it was me in the photo, but there was somebody else’s name in the caption: Geraldine,” Parker-Fraley tells PEOPLE. “I was amazed.”
The photo, showing 20-year-old Parker-Fraley sporting her signature red-and-white-polka-dot bandana and working on a turret lathe, was taken in 1942 by a photographer touring the Naval Air Station in Alameda, California, and featured in newspapers and magazines nationwide.
“It ran in newspapers from San Francisco to Washington,” Parker-Fraley says. “I even got fan mail!”
Corbis / Getty
It was also believed to have caught the eye of artist J. Howard Miller, whose 1943 Rosie the Riveter poster bears a striking resemblance to Parker-Fraley’s photo, right down to the bandana.
Parker-Fraley spent decades unaware of her connection to the poster, mostly because another woman named Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who worked in a factory in Michigan, had been labeled “the real-life Rosie the Riveter” since she believed she saw herself in an un-captioned reprint of Parker-Fraley’s photo in the 1980s.
Because Hoff Doyle bore a striking resemblance to Parker-Fraley, no one questioned her claim, and her story traveled around the world.
Once Parker-Fraley learned her photo had been misidentified for almost 30 years, she tried to set the record straight by sending a newspaper clipping of her photo and its original caption to the park service. But it was too late. Hoff Doyle’s place had already been cemented in history.
Parker-Fraley was devastated. “I just wanted my own identity,” she says. “I didn’t want fame or fortune, but I did want my own identity.”
Her cause remained hopeless until 2015, when she met James J. Kimble, a professor of communications at Seton Hall University in New Jersey whose six-year quest to identify the woman in the photo had led him to straight to her door.
“She had been robbed of her part of history,” Kimble says. “It’s so hurtful to be misidentified like that. It’s like the train has left the station and you’re standing there and there’s nothing you can do because you’re 95 and no one listens to your story.”
Kimble was eager to hear Parker-Fraley’s story when he visited the Redding, California, home she shares with her sister in February 2015. Even better, he promised to do everything in his power to set the record straight.
The professor shared Parker-Fraley’s story with the academic world in a 2016 article in the journal Rhetoric and Public Affairs and others soon took note. Now, Parker-Fraley, who was divorced once, widowed twice and spent most of her life working as a waitress, is ready for the spotlight.
“The women of this country these days need some icons,” she says. “If they think I’m one, I’m happy about that.”
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