The Home as Battlefront: Femininity, Gendered Spheres, and the 1943 Women in National Service Campaign

Article excerpt

This essay investigates the dynamics of the Women in National Service (WINS) campaign, an attempt by the magazine Ladies' Home Journal to militarize middle-class housewives on the U.S. home front during Worm War II. Adapting the construct of gendered spheres to the campaign, the analysis suggests that the WINS effort carefully modulated its prewar depictions of domesticity and female submissiveness to offer a transformative view of the wartime home and the role of the housewife in it. The essay concludes, however, that while this transformed vision was overtly empowering, its built-in limitations effectively created a sense of covert disempowerment.

Keywords femininity, gender, gendered spheres, home front, housewives, Ladies' Home Journal, World War II

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We're not the Army, we're not the Navy,
We get the work without the gravy,
We're the dustpan crew standing back of you,
Fighting on the home front--WINS!

--Official WINS song

Mildred Riddle Douglas was an improbable inspiration for those on the U.S. home front during World War II. As a homemaker--and the mother of two children--she was unlikely to have had the time to gain widespread recognition by winning an elected national office. As a 40-year-old, her chances of becoming a renowned riveter or welder in a war factory were slim. And as a woman, she would have had no opportunity to earn medals for bravery in battle. Indeed, the possibility that she could even dream of inspiring countless others on the home front must have seemed quite remote.

Yet for a brief period in 1943, Douglas did in fact become an inspiration for many Americans. Introduced by the editors of Ladies' Home Journal to their readers in the March issue, Douglas was suddenly transformed from the little-known wife of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas to the public face of a campaign aimed at changing perceptions of American homes and the women who labored in them during the war. The magazine called its effort the Women in National Service campaign, or WINS. With patriotic visuals and stirring prose, the WINS program positioned Douglas as a role model in support of its positive message to homemakers and housewives all over the country: "You're the WINS" (1943, p. 24). (1) Before long, the new group swelled, becoming "the largest, most informally structured home front organization of the war years" (Jones, 2006, p. 178).

The WINS campaign emerged at a turbulent time for women on the home front. In the latter half of 1942, both government and industry began to target "woman-power" (Sadler, 1942, p. B5; see also Honey, 1984, p. 38) as a means of replacing the steadily diminishing supply of male labor for war factories. White women whose husbands were in the service were "the most obvious labor source, and so propaganda badgered and enticed them into the labor market" (Adams, 1994, p. 123). Numerous media outlets began to taunt "Mrs. Stay-at-Home" (Gluck, 1987, p. 13), faithfully following the Office of War Information's suggestion that "any strong, able-bodied woman who is not completely occupied with a job and a home--is going to be considered a 'slacker'" (as cited in Rupp, 1978, p. 97). America's homemakers thus increasingly felt pressured to ensure that their "record of homefront sacrifice ... match[ed] up to that of the men in the battle zones" (Anderson, 1981, p. 28).

For countless middle-class women on the home front, however, taking on what the government considered a war job was not feasible. The war had not halted the numerous home-based chores that traditionally fell to homemakers. Indeed, with millions of men absent for the duration, even more work--such as maintaining the family car, fixing plumbing problems, and cleaning gutters--was left to those at home. (2) Moreover, added Susan M. Hartmann (1982), the wartime economy necessitated a halt in the production of "stoves, refrigerators, electric sweepers, and aluminum, stainless-steel, and copper utensils. …