“We Can Do It” 
–War Poster 


During the 1930s, the Great Depression impacted women and their families across the country. Yet women’s collective action did not cease. While they rarely spoke of a “women’s movement,” American women mobilized for labor rights, victory, and civil rights. Their efforts demonstrated the power of women’s citizenship in action and laid the groundwork for the decades to come. Women went to work and organized unions, reshaping the labor movement and the New Deal. When war came, women marched into factories and auxiliary brigades, taking on the full responsibilities of wartime citizenship. During and after the war, Black women and their allies organized civil rights campaigns to make the nation live up to its democratic ideals. Women’s work was essential to these struggles, but even within social movements, activists faced sexism and gender discrimination. Women drew on these experiences when they began marching for women’s liberation in the 1960s. In so doing, they manifested the words of the famous war poster: “We Can Do It.”

Labor unions filmed rallies and May Day parades, the federal government produced slick films to recruit women to military auxiliaries and industrial war work, and news organizations covered efforts to desegregate schools.  

International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union May Day Parade, New York City, ca. 1935 
The Kheel Center for Labor-Management Documentation and Archives, Cornell University Library 

Glamour Girls of 1943, 1943. National Archives 

Black Mothers Protest School Discrimination in New York, 1958 
WSB Newsfilm Collection,The University of Georgia Libraries 

Riva Helfond (1910–2002) 
Curtain Factory, 1938  
Oil on canvas 
Courtesy of the Estate of Riva Helfond and the Susan Teller Gallery, New York, New York 
Brooklyn-born artist Riva Helfond (1910-2002) worked in a factory to survive during art school. The Works Progress Administration employed her as a teacher at the Harlem Community Art Center. Her social realist style reveals the contemporary conditions of women’s labor. Helfond became active in the unionization of artists. 

A New Deal for Women 

After Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s election in 1932, women participated in remaking the nation from above and below. As with men, working-class women lost their jobs in factories and went to work in offices, schools, and social service agencies. They joined unions and launched campaigns to support members and their families. Women also used the power of the federal government to create resources such as the first federal welfare programs for children and unmarried mothers. Leading women of Roosevelt’s administration, including Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, National Youth Administrator Mary McLeod Bethune, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt supported unions and helped shape the New Deal. In these tumultuous years, women artists and writers in the Works Progress Administration captured American women at work and on the march. 

Draftswoman Antoinette Mauro and coworkers in the 
Brooklyn Navy Yard
, ca. 1942
Antoinette Mauro Collection, MC/1; Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Archives, Brooklyn, New York

Building a “Vengeance” dive bomber at Vultee-Nashville, 1943 
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C. 
Fictionalized images of “Rosie the Riveter”–including those by artists J. Howard Miller (for the War Production Coordinating Committee) and Norman Rockwell (for the Saturday Evening Post)–have captured the American imagination since World War II. Nearly 350,000 women joined the war effort, including the women depicted here in shipyards and aircraft-building factories. 

Congress of Industrial Organizations
A Woman’s Guide to Political Action, 1944
Pa​tricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society  

This booklet, created by the CIO, a federation of labor unions, argued that “the future of America lies in the hands of our woman voters” because many men were uprooted and not able to vote. 

National Woman’s Party
Do you know that a woman does not have...pamphlet, 1943
The Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism

Barmaids in Arms, 1950 
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library

National Urban League and National Council of Negro Women
A Voteless People is a Hopeless People flyer, 1956
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Frances Albrier Collection

Cox Studio, Women activists with signs for voter registration, 1956 
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Frances Albrier Collection

Rosa Parks, Letter to Governor in support of Recy Taylor, ca. 1944
Alabama Department of Archives and History   

Recy Taylor was 24 years old when she was raped by six white men while walking home from church. Activists called out the enduring sexual violence against Black women and emphasized the hypocrisy of claims that lynching was a justified response to Black men raping white women. Despite Rosa Parks’ hopeful tone in this letter, the accused were not indicted.

Flyer encouraging people to participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, 1955
Alabama Department of Archives and History