The Home-Front War: World War II and American Society

By Kenneth Paul O'Brien; Lynn Hudson Parsons | Go to book overview

8
"The Vice Admiral": Margaret Chase Smith and the Investigation of Congested Areas in Wartime

Janann Sherman

The total mobilization of Americans for World War II blurred the boundaries between home front and battle front and, at least temporarily, blurred the lines between genders. The ensuing public discourse about proper activities for women underscored the competing visions of women's place in American society and the remarkable tenacity of traditional roles.

The president's wife and eight congresswomen were among the very few females in positions of public power in American government. Most took it upon themselves to speak for women, often working across partisan lines for the advancement of their sex. One of them, Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, was just beginning her tenure on her first major committee, and one of the most powerful committees in wartime, the House Committee for Naval Affairs. 1 Smith worked on a wide variety of military and home-front issues on this committee. But her role as spokesperson and advocate for women was foremost in those war years. Distinguished by her gender, Smith used her unique access to the public eye, in both the media and congressional hearings, to lobby for the amelioration of the particular problems of working women. From her strategic position on the Naval Affairs Committee, she wrote and forcefully pursued a series of measures to expand women's roles in military service. Smith's efforts on behalf of military women have been detailed elsewhere. 2 What follows is an analysis of Smith's work on the Naval Affairs Subcommittee for Congested Areas and its implications for the role of women in the public sphere.

It was "vice"--a euphemism for prostitution--and a rising venereal disease rate that prompted a congressional response to congested conditions in communities expanded by military activities and war industry and pulled Smith into the center of discussions about women in wartime. Her subcommittee toured military installations, schools, neighborhoods, war industries, hospitals, and jails. They heard from 421 witnesses during 33 days of hearings in 13 cities on both coasts and Hawaii. The hearings generated more than 2,400 pages of testimony and reports from city and state officials, industry management, federal agency representatives, military leaders, and interested

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