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Before “Rosie the Riveter” there was Veronica “Ronnie” Foster — the Bren Gun Girl.

Before “Rosie the Riveter” there was Veronica “Ronnie” Foster — the Bren Gun Girl.

During WWII, Rosie the Riveter became an allegorical cultural icon who represented the women working in the factories and shipyards. Made famous by a song written in 1942, by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb, Rosie appeared in government posters and commercial advertising as she encouraged women to volunteer for wartime service in factories.

Rosie Wasn't Real... She Wasn't the First

While actress Jane Frazee starred as Rosalind “Rosie” Warren in the 1944 musical “Rosie the Riveter,” it has been debated whether there was ever an actual woman named Rosie. Even though a few candidates have been identified, including Rosina “Rosie” Bonavita, Rosalind P. Walter, and Rose Will Monroe, it is likely there never was a true Rosie.

Not as well known — at least in the United States — was another strong female character who became a cultural icon of the era: Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl.

Unlike the allegoric Rosie, Ronnie’s identity is well-established. She was Veronica Foster, and she worked for the John Inglis Co., which produced the Bren Light Machine Gun. She appeared in the Canadian government’s public relations/propaganda poster campaign created to boost morale and generate support for the war effort by encouraging women to serve by working in munitions factories.

Whereas Ronnie may have come first, J. Howard Miller’s poster of “Rosie the Riveter” has become an iconic reference to the “we can do it” spirit of WWII. For years, the inspiration for the woman in the famous poster had been widely and mistakenly promoted to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Michigan, who worked in a Navy machine shop during the war.

Whereas Ronnie may have come first, J. Howard Miller’s poster of “Rosie the Riveter” has become an iconic reference to the “we can do it” spirit of WWII. For years, the inspiration for the woman in the famous poster had been widely and mistakenly promoted to be Geraldine Hoff Doyle of Michigan, who worked in a Navy machine shop during the war.

The then-19-year-old Foster was first seen in a poster smoking while seemingly admiring a recently constructed Bren Gun. The National Film Board (NFB) photo was taken on May 10, 1941 — predating any cultural reference to Rosie by well over a year. And with that photo, Veronica became “Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl.”

With her curve-hugging overalls and head scarf, she was meant to exude a blend of femininity and female liberation. She quickly became the subject of public infatuation. It is impossible not to see that Rosie was clearly influenced by Ronnie. Yet, where Rosie will always be remembered for her single “We Can Do It!” pose, Ronnie appeared in a series of posters.

“’Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl’ was a key part of the effort to get more Canadian women to take on jobs in war production,” said Stacey J. Barker, Ph.D., historian of arts and military history at the Canadian War Museum.

“Unlike Rosie, Veronica Foster was real, “explained Barker. “She was an actual munitions worker at the John Inglis plant in Toronto and was featured in a series of publicity photos that were taken in 1941 by the National Film Board, illustrating the ‘typical’ life of a woman war worker. Other women were featured in this series, but Veronica, or ‘Ronnie’ as she came to be known, stood out.”

Rosie the Riveter was seen singing in the 1944 musical, but the real Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl was seen dancing the jitterbug.

Rosie the Riveter was seen singing in the 1944 musical, but the real Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl was seen dancing the jitterbug.

These showed her in more casual and even intimate settings such as Foster doing her hair, dancing the jittberbug and even attending fancy dinner parties. The images were meant to glamorize war-related industrial work and show that women could take over the grueling factory jobs of men but still remain women.

“The purpose of the campaign was to get more women into war work, by showing it in a wholesome, almost glamorous light,” Barker told Military Trader. “And Ronnie was perfect — she was a young, attractive woman, and the series depicted her not just at work but also in her leisure time. Ronnie was photogenic and charismatic — she was a singer and performer as well as a munitions worker.”

While not as glamorous as the official Bren Gun Girl photo, this one showed Foster working the line at the Inglis Company plant in Toronto in May 1941.

While not as glamorous as the official Bren Gun Girl photo, this one showed Foster working the line at the Inglis Company plant in Toronto in May 1941.

Ironic Ronnie

The most famous photo of Ronnie is with the Bren Gun with cigarette in hand. Interestingly, Foster didn’t actually smoke.

“The most iconic image from the photo series is the one of her smoking a cigarette over a finished Bren Gun,” explained Barker. “Unsubtle, perhaps, and certainly suggestive enough to become an enduring image of the war for Canadians. But Ronnie was also reassuring. At a time when gender roles were challenged by war needs, with women entering previously male domains such as the military and industry, Ronnie presented a very feminine image. The photos of Ronnie appeared widely, including American newspapers, and may well have inspired the fictional ‘Rosie’ character that became an American wartime icon. As such, her cultural importance endures, and she is one of the key images of the Second World War for Canadians.”

Even as rather simple posters, these are still sought after among collectors, in part because few have survived.

“Bren gun girl posters don’t show up very often but are in good demand when they do and sell quickly,” said Dave Hiorth of Military Antiques Toronto.

Ronnie outside the Inglis Company plant – this shows the scale of the wartime operations.

Ronnie outside the Inglis Company plant – this shows the scale of the wartime operations.

After Ronnie the Bren Gun Girl

While the campaign was initially successful, the labor shortages continued. As a result, the Canadian government continued to target married women, including those with children. Instead of the fancy free Foster, later posters highlighted that female workers were able to blend domesticity, piety, and family life.

Following the war, Veronica Foster left her job at the John Inglis Company. She worked as a model and performed as a singer with big bands of the era, including the Trump Davidson Orchestra. She was later the lead singer with the dance band Mart Kenney and His Western Gentlemen.

While singing with the band, she met trombone player George Guerrette and the two married in 1945. They had five children together. After Guerrette died in 1963, Foster became a real estate agent and won awards in her field. She passed away on May 4, 2000 — just shy of 59 years after first being photographed as the Bren Gun Girl.

In 2020, Veronica Foster was honored in a stamps to mark the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

In 2020, Veronica Foster was honored in a stamps to mark the 75th anniversary of V-E Day.

In May 2020, Canada Post released two stamps to mark the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. One highlighted Private Léo Major — the other featured Foster.

Only One Ronnie 

Over the course of the war, there had been more than 14,000 other Bren Gun Girls who worked at the Inglis Company plant. It was a massive factory that had been converted from building large machinery and pumps into a gun-making plant, specializing in the Bren machine gun. The government contracted the Inglis facility to make the weapons for both British and Canadian soldiers By the end of the Inglis had produced more than 40,000 Bren Guns.

By the later war years posters, such as Mrs. Jack Wright and her two sons Ralph and David eating breakfast replaced the Bren Gun Girl campaign.

By the later war years posters, such as Mrs. Jack Wright and her two sons Ralph and David eating breakfast replaced the Bren Gun Girl campaign.

Already massive, it was expanded to cover 23 acres with more than a million square feet of floor space. The largest line, where Veronica spent long hard hours, was for the Bren, the light and reliable machine gun used by the British and Commonwealth militaries. There may have been many employees at the plant during the war, but truly there was only one Veronica “Ronnie” Foster — the original and most famous Bren Gun Girl. 

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