Friday, March 9, 2012

Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era by D’Ann Campbell

Dr Campbell, a historian and currently a faculty member at Culver-Stockton College in Missouri, has a special interest in the history of women in the military services. Her book offers some food for reflection concerning how women’s lives in the United States were affected by World War II. For its background, she relied heavily on surveys taken by government and organizations at the time, and cites studies which quantify the percentages of women and their status before, throughout and after the war years.

Because of the nature of her data, the book at times seemed dry, full of statistics, which were not always easily translated (for me) into living and breathing scenarios. However, a good part of these “facts” did give me a detailed picture of what life must have been like in those days. Some of the general themes could be anticipated, i.e., how reluctant our armed forces was to admit women to their ranks. There were ups and downs for women in the military, with some branches more welcoming than others (the Navy was the best, evidently) and it was interesting to note that women’s salaries overall were improved by entering the service; while men on the whole were paid less in the military compared to their salaries before the war. Campbell is at pains to dissemble the idea that women weren’t working before the war – actually a good part were, at least until they got married. Unlike other countries, the United States government was firmly against the idea of women seeing combat. Even nurses in the military, who were more accepted by the public in general, did not tend to the wounded in the field.

While “Rosie the Riveter” is a popular image, Campbell informs us that there were some negative aspects of women’s venture onto the assembly line. With virtual segregation still in effect, African-American women, for the most part, were not hired in factories. Job segregation still existed, with many companies determining which fields a woman could work in. Unions were likely to be leery of women joining their ranks, since the implication was that women’s first priority was their family, and they would not be long-term employees.

Campbell takes pains to illustrate her thesis – that the government at war had its objectives that it wanted women to help with, yet at the same time not wanting to endanger their primary status as the keeper of hearth and home. There was a serious backlash to women’s military enrollment which England experienced as well: around 1943 a substantial number of enlisted soldiers began calling all female military sexually promiscuous. This discouraged many women from enlisting, and discouraged their families from giving them support or permission to enlist.

The book gives you a lot to absorb and with so many ideological tussles going on, it’s no wonder that it’s hard to decide how women’s status improved during war time, if at all. One thing at least is certain, is that it decidedly changed.

Click here for the catalog listing.

1 comment:

Cozy in Texas said...

Sounds like this might be a good book club read - lots to discuss.