A Women’s History Month profile: American women during World War II

March 28th, 2019

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In an interview originally published on Jerry Jazz Musician in 2004, Emily Yellin, author of Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II, talks about the historic contributions women made toward the war effort

 

 

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Emily Yellin,

author of

Our Mother’s War:

American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II

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Emily Yellin’s Our Mothers’ War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II is a stunning and unprecedented portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society. It is a long overdue examination that re-creates what American women from all walks of life were doing and thinking, on the home front and abroad.

Like all great histories, Our Mothers’ War began with an illuminating discovery. After finding a journal and letters her mother had written while serving with the Red Cross in the Pacific, Yellin started unearthing what her mother and other women of her mother’s generation went through during a time when their country asked them to step into roles they had never been invited, or allowed, to fill before.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including personal interviews and previously unpublished letters and diaries, Yellin shows what went on in the hearts and minds of the real women behind the female images of World War II — women working in war plants; mothers and wives sending their husbands and sons off to war and sometimes death; women joining the military for the first time in American history; nurses operating in battle zones in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific; and housewives coping with rationing.

Yellin also delves into lesser-known stories, including: tales of female spies, pilots, movie stars, baseball players, politicians, prostitutes, journalists, and even fictional characters; firsthand accounts from the wives of the scientists who created the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, African-American women who faced Jim Crow segregation laws at home even as their men were fighting enemy bigotry and injustice abroad, and Japanese-American women locked up as prisoners in their own country.

Yellin joins Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in a June, 2004 interview that gives center stage to those who might be called “the other American soldiers.”#

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Ordnance mechanics at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland

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“I had always visualized World War II in black and white, just like the movies and photos from it.  But all of this mining through my mother’s war years was giving me a more personal connection.  World War II started to take on color and dimension like never before.  And I began to see those four years of the war as a kind of inadvertent revolution in America, a time when, while men were not really watching, women all over this country from every walk of life learned they could accomplish things they had never been allowed or asked to try before.”

– Emily Yellin

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Listen to “I Wonder,” by Louis Armstrong

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JJM  Your book focuses on the roles women played during World War II, and how their work contributed to the transformation of American society.  How did your interest in this topic begin?

EY  It started with my mother. She died in 1999, and about a year later I was going through some things of hers that had made their way into my attic and found four shoe boxes marked “1940’s.” Inside of them were hundreds of letters she had written home to her parents during the war. They opened up a world that I had never really considered. While I knew that my mother quit her job as an editor at Readers Digest to join the Red Cross, and serve in Saipan, what I didn’t understand were her every day experiences. The letters allowed me to connect to them and to her. And as a journalist I realized that I could help other people connect to their own mother’s or grandmother’s war time experiences. Most of what I had known of World War II – as with many of us – came from my father’s war stories, and I thought it was important to open up the other half of the “Greatest Generation,” and look at what women went through and the impact of their experiences.

JJM  What kinds of jobs were available to women prior to the war?

EY  I saw an amazing transformation. Before the war — during the Depression in particular — women were not encouraged to work. It was thought that a woman working was taking a job away from a man who really needed it, and married women in particular were “encouraged” not to work. When the war began, men were being sent off to war at the same point production of war machinery was being stepped up. They were losing manpower at the very time they needed it most, so hiring women was done more out of necessity than progressiveness. Women were a pretty clear choice, and they rose to the challenge. World War II became the first time that married women outnumbered single women in the work force, which prompted significant changes to the work place. Day care, for example, first became a major issue during the war.

JJM  As a child, the primary image I had of women during the war was their having to cope with rationing. The story I always heard in my family was how they only had a cube of butter a week — that kind of thing. So, they not only had to deal with work outside the home, but the role of homemaker changed as well, didn’t it?

EY  To a point, yes. The role of homemaker probably did not change that much, but the demands on women in that role widened. While they had to maintain their role as homemaker, they also had to go to work outside the home, which was a contradictory pressure. Women had to go through a lot of contortions because there was pressure on them to maintain the home during the war — and that is the image we have of women at that time, of being left behind while their husbands went off to war.

I was surprised to learn that more men stayed home during the war than went overseas. Males over thirty-five and under eighteen were home, still expecting women to fill their traditional roles even while taking on outside work. So, women were expected to be housewives and join the war effort, all at once, with little or no support in society. And they were expected to do all of these things without complaining.

JJMAnd without expressing fear and other emotions…

EY  That’s right. The attitude was that they had little to complain about since they were not facing the guns. It’s been eye-opening to meet women from that era who even today will say, “I didn’t do anything during World War II.” But talk to them for a while and hear them tell about how they sent a husband to war, raised children alone, worked eight hours a day six days a week for the first time in their lives, coped with rationing, and lived virtually alone the entire time. They faced these things and so much more, yet they say they didn’t do much during the war. So it was very gratifying as a journalist, and with my mother’s own memory as my guide, to recognize this and write about it.

JJM  How did women’s magazines and books during the war era suggest that women cope with these stresses?

EY  I was surprised at how frank and sensitive many of the magazine articles were. We tend to think of that as a “post-Oprah” thing, but there were frequent articles about wives missing their husbands in very personal ways. However, the solutions were not particularly satisfying, because the advice frequently was for women to just “buck up,” and the way to handle missing your husband was to do war work, and to volunteer. There was no real sense of taking seriously the stresses that women were under.

JJM When did the government and American industry begin thinking that employing women could be a solution to the wartime labor shortage?

EY  Prior to America joining the war, manufacturing weaponry was Roosevelt’s way for us to contribute to our allies without committing troops. America was known as this great arsenal of Democracy. As this effort was stepped up, and as the drafting of men for the services began before Pearl Harbor people were needed to replace them, so eventually industry turned to black people and women. There were already eleven million women in the work force before the war, but most of those were in lower paying jobs.

JJM  Were they doing primarily clerical work?

EY  No, more like waitressing and domestic work. While some clerical work was being done, that is actually an example of an opportunity that opened for women. In many cases, they did government clerical work for the first time during the war. One of the things my mother often told me was that women didn’t compare themselves to men, they were just happy to get the opportunities they did, because they never had them before. I think that is very important to remember. We can look back on it now and say women made so much less than men and weren’t allowed to do the kinds of jobs that they were qualified for, but it is really important to look at it in the context of the time.

JJM  Of her involvement in the war effort, twenty-two year old Red Cross worker Billy Banks Doan said, “I really felt I had to be in the war. It was part of my personality. Where the action was, that’s where I wanted to be…It was an opportunity to move out in the world and learn something about it.” What was the most common avenue taken by women toward war involvement?

EY  World War II was also the first time women were allowed in the military. I say “allowed” because women were not officially accepted in the military before World War II. While there had been women in the military in various ways prior to the war, government bills were passed and separate women branches within the military were set up for the first time. Nurses had been part of the military since the turn of the century, but their status within the military was improved during World War II as well.

While the Army was the only branch of the military that allowed women to go overseas, many women went overseas with organizations like the Red Cross and the USO, I don’t think that we often recognize that. Also, four thousand women worked in the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, including Julia Child, who served in India and China. It is incredibly fascinating to discover the extent to which women stepped up and took part as citizens. Women only got the right to vote in 1920, so World War II was the first war in which women had a real voice in government. And it was female legislators who spearheaded the bills that allowed women in the military.

JJM  How did the government use public relations to recruit women for labor and military service?

EY  Posters were an important communications device. If television was not a force at that time, and radio was the main form of mass communication. . Magazines and newspapers were also more widely read then than they are today. But posters were also an important tool and were used to try to change the image of women in the workplace as well as in the military. The most famous poster image is of “Rosie the Riveter,” with her arm in a fist, saying, “We can do it.” But notice that in that poster she has plucked eyebrows, and wears mascara, lipstick, and fingernail polish. With that poster, the government communicated that it was good for women to join the workforce, but it also made it clear that the women who did, would maintain their femininity all the while.

JJM  Yes, but it seemed as if the government wanted it both ways. While they were sensitive about portraying women as desirable and feminine on these posters — despite their having to work in industrial labor — they also characterized women as being the guilty party in the spread of venereal disease.

EY  That’s right. There was some complexity in the way women were used in the government propaganda of the time. I wrote a chapter called “The Wrong Kind of Woman,” which mentions venereal disease. It was a big problem during World Wars I and II, before penicillin came along. The thinking was that men’s sexuality could not be controlled, but women’s could. So women became the villains. On many of these posters, venereal disease actually was portrayed as a woman.

It is important to remember that we are looking at these issues from a twenty-first century perspective. I kept that in mind while I was writing. And the thing that kept grounding me and kept me from making too many modern-day value judgments were my mother’s letters. I used excerpts from them before various chapters to help keep the reader grounded as well.

JJM  I found one of her letters particularly insightful and very touching. Part of the letter reads, “The history of women is much like the history of black people in this country. It has never been recorded…All of our history has been written by men, for men and about men. And women were simply the auxiliaries, the ladies’ auxiliary…The only kind of history that we have of the part women have played in the building of this country and of the world for that matter is family history.” I have to believe that was something that really connected you to her.

EY  It is funny, because that is from a speech that my mother gave years later, in 1971, and I was apparently in the audience. I put that speech in the epilogue because I found it after I had written the book and it was as if she were talking to me, telling me I had done the right thing in writing this book. I believe it is really important that everybody question their mothers and their grandmothers about their lives and look at family letters and journals and other documents. You might think they are cluttering your attic, but they are a vital source of information.

JJM  You talked a little earlier about Rosie the Riveter. How did her myth begin?

EY  In 1943, a group called the Four Vagabonds did a song called “Rosie the Riveter,” which was to celebrate women working in the factories. Norman Rockwell picked up on that name and drew a Saturday Evening Post cover of a very tough, beefy, not particularly feminine Rosie, eating a sandwich. Then the government stepped in and produced the famous We Can Do It! poster and that more feminine image endures.

In my book, I tried to show more dimension in the women’s stories. The women who worked in the factories were pioneers. They were often very young and faced resentment from male co-workers, yet they stepped up and met the challenges, without much recognition or support. The women I spoke with described what we would now call harassment, but there was no name for it at the time and certainly no avenues for reporting it, so they just kept going.

JJM How was war work glamorized to make it appealing for women?

EY  We have been talking quite a bit about Rosie the Riveter, and that is important, because six million women worked in factories, but it is very important to make the point that women did many other things. The images of Rosie, of the waiting wife, and even of the female entertainers and fictional characters are the ones that have survived World War II. Those are the things we know, and I started my book with them. But World War II opened up the world for so many women in so many other ways. And so many ways women courageously broke down barrier to their participation in public life.

JJM  The military required a large number of support people, the nursing profession being one of them. You wrote, “At the beginning of World War II there were only a few thousand military nurses. But within six months of the attack on Pearl Harbor, almost 10,000 nurses joined the Army Nurse Corps alone. By the end of the war, 59,000 nurses had served in the Army Nurse Corps, and 11,000 nurses had served in the Navy Nurse Corps.”

EY  Yes, nurses were very important. I do want to mention something. I don’t call their work “support” roles. I know what you are saying, but “support” implies that they were doing something that wasn’t particularly important. And while that is a way of seeing it, it is almost impossible now for me to call giving up your life and going over to a war zone “support.” These women were leaders, pioneers, and amazingly courageous.

JJM  Sure, and professionals too…

EY  Exactly. Some women nurses were prisoners of war in the Philippines for three years, and not to take anything away from the women serving now, but women who are prisoners of war for three weeks now are considered heroes. So it is very important to recognize that these women who were prisoners of war for three years were also heroes. They were doing everything they were allowed to do, and the only reason they didn’t do more is because they weren’t allowed.

It is natural to think of their work as “support work.” It is what we were taught. Before writing this book I thought of it in the same way, but I have really come to see otherwise. When I meet these women and honor their service, they often respond in tears, because no one has thanked them or recognized them as having been essential to the war effort.

JJM One of the most famous personalities to emerge during World War II was the radio announcer Tokyo Rose.

EY  Yes, her story is fascinating. She was an American citizen, born in America on July fourth. She graduated from UCLA and had never even been to Japan before going there just prior to Pearl Harbor to take care of her sick aunt. She was twenty-four years old at the time. Right after Pearl Harbor was attacked, she tried to come home to America but the Japanese government wouldn’t let her. They asked her to revoke her American citizenship and become Japanese, where she could live peacefully, but she wouldn’t do it. And because she wouldn’t do it, and because she had an American accent, they forced her to do this radio announcing work. Unknown to the Japanese, she spoke encoded messages of encouragement to the American troops, and as a result she thought she was doing heroic work. Unfortunately, when the war ended, the American press, led by the Hearst newspapers, came looking for villains, and they worked hard to try to make her one. And for the most part, they succeeded.

While there were many women on the airwaves during the war, doing the same kind of work as Tokyo Rose, they were all either Japanese or Americans who had revoked their citizenship. Because Tokyo Rose did not, she was the one singled out for this publicity. Meanwhile, while she was trying to get out of Japan, her family was sent to an internment camp, where her mother died. The woman they called Tokyo Rose ended up being tried for treason and went to prison for ten years. So she gave a lot to the war effort and was treated abominably by our government. She was a hero. But not every woman in my book is a hero.

JJM  Yes. Talk a little about the work of Elizabeth Dilling…?

EY  Dilling was part of what was called the Mother’s Movement. They were women who, under the guise of being mothers, opposed to the war. Before Pearl Harbor they were part of the isolationist movement, which included Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh. And while most of the isolationists quieted down after Pearl Harbor these women continued. Dilling was pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, she didn’t like black people, and didn’t seem to like many people at all. She was tried for sedition in 1944, but was not convicted. She was not a real pleasant person.

JJM  What about the incredibly courageous women who were involved in espionage?

EY  The most famous American woman spy during World War II was Virginia Hall, a Maryland native who had a wooden leg Before D-Day, she was in France collecting valuable information on German troop movements, and supplying it to the allies. The Germans knew about her, and said she was one of the most valuable allied spies in Europe, yet she managed to elude them. She was recognized as a very heroic woman. We don’t think of women doing these very active things during World War II, but they did.

JJM In a newsletter for war employees published by Boeing in October, 1944, an example of a female worker’s attitude toward work was published: “Lorraine Blum, riveter, 684, likes to build Boeing bombers to help knock out the Nips and Nazis. ‘But as soon as it’s curtains for the Axis, it’s going to be lace curtains for me. I want to establish my own home and stay put.'” Was this pretty typical of women’s post World War II dreams?

EY  By 1944, when the war was winding down, all of the propaganda directed toward making it okay for women to work was turned around again. Women were told it was time to go home — sometimes very unceremoniously. But if you speak to these women, many of them wanted to leave the work force and return to the home, so there is a kernel of truth to that Boeing employee’s statement. Many of these women wanted to go back to the lives that they hoped to have and forget about the war. While the common image we have is that they returned home and left an idyllic nineteen-fifties life, some of these women continued to work and many discovered the satisfaction and gratification that comes from work. I think with that discovery the seeds of the women’s movement in the sixties and seventies were sown.

JJM  Well, clearly World War II accelerated social change and opened up many doors. The women who wanted to continue working after the war were faced with very complex issues. You quoted a letter written by Edith Sokol to her husband where she wrote about how the world opened up for her, and questioned whether her husband would be able to accept that.

EY  I love that letter, because it really showed the way women had to negotiate this issue. She is very sweet to her husband, writing “sweetie,” “honey,” “dear,” “I have changed,” but she is basically saying, “I am going to have to work and you are going to have to deal with it.” It is lovely.

That actually reminded me of my mother, and I think it probably rings true for a lot of children of that generation. She would always present things that might be unpleasant in such a sweet way. The World War II song, “Accentuate the Positive” stuck with me while writing this. I came to see is that my mother and women of her generation were facing challenges that were not acknowledged, So, having a positive attitude was their armor. And while that could be seen as a weakness, I ended up seeing it as a strength. It was how they made it through what I call an “inadvertent revolution.” I don’t think these women set out to change society, but they did it anyway.

JJM  You quote William Chafe, author of the 1972 book, The American Woman,as saying, “Female participation in the labor force was essential to victory in the war, but it also raised serious questions about the nation’s social values and the future direction of male-female relationships.” That pretty much sums up this issue…

EY  Yes, he was a feminist, and he wrote that book in 1972. We are now looking back at World War II with an even deeper level of sophistication than when Chafe wrote that. That additional perspective is what makes history so alive and continually fascinating.

JJM  Marjorie Randolph, a black member of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC), said, “Of course, you fought the war between the men and the women…Then you had the racial thing that you were facing. Then you had the war you were fighting between the overseas and the United States. So you were fighting these three wars at the same time, and that was very difficult.” African American women had particularly difficult challenges.

EY  That’s right. I titled the chapter on African American women “Jane Crow,” because the Army and the South lived under Jim Crow laws. African American women were facing every day discrimination to begin with, and imagine how difficult it would be for a mother to send her son into war where he would be segregated into a black unit. On top of that, she does factory work in a segregated environment where she is discriminated against for being black and for being a woman.

JJM Concerning the work of your book, you wrote, “…no one objected to the women being given their due. But it usually seemed like an afterthought. Once all the men’s sacrifices were acknowledged, then we as a country could afford to give the women’s role in World War II a tip of the hat as well. I understood that mission as I set out, accepted the parameters, and felt honored to be able to pursue it.” One thing that your book did for me is that it got me talking to my mother and mother-in-law about their wartime experiences. It also gave me a startling appreciation for them that I didn’t have prior to reading your book. Did the writing of your book change your perspective about your own mother?

EY  Definitely. And as I say in the book after the passage you read, it changed my perspective on all the women of that generation. If talking to your mother and having a greater appreciation for her service to our country is what you and other people get from the book then I am very pleased.

JJM  When I asked my mother what she did while a young woman living in San Francisco during the war, she reminded me that she had been a bank teller. I asked her if she was interested in working in any of the factories there and she kind of laughed and said her father never would have allowed that.

EY  World War II was the first time women were even allowed to be bank tellers. It was something only the men did before that. And what your mother faced with her father was one of the biggest obstacles to women working — the men in their lives accepting their new roles. There were so many new challenges to face and obstacles to overcome for virtually every woman of this generation. I hope my book shows how they did it.

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Library of Congress

“As American men were marching into combat to change the balance of power throughout Europe and the East, the wives, mothers, and sisters of America found themselves thrust into a quieter revolution of their own. Without due recognition or validation, and most often unwittingly, wartime women embarked on an odyssey that would, for better or worse, begin to explode their time-honored roles within their own families. And the four years of World War II would also start to blow wide open previous notions of just how fully and adeptly women were capable of contributing to and participating in American society as a whole.”

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– Emily Yellin

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Read an excerpt

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About Emily Yellin

JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

EY  I would have to say it was Eudora Welty. I grew up in the South, and in high school I began reading her short stories and absolutely loved them. I ended up going to the University of Wisconsin, and only discovered later that she also went there and majored in English, just as I did. Another hero of mine was Catwoman. When I was a little bitty kid, I wanted to be her. I think I ended up somewhere between the two.

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This interview took place on June 29, 2004

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If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with World War II historian David Colley on the integration of the U.S. Army.

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# Text from publisher.

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