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

By Kenneth Paul O'Brien; Lynn Hudson Parsons | Go to book overview
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press, an outraged Congress, and pressure from the Secretary of the Navy, the White House created an Executive Committee for Congested Production Areas with the authority to prescribe binding policies. 79 As the Naval Affairs Congested Area Subcommittee completed its investigations, its reports were increasingly addressed to this committee. The resulting division of labor brought significant action. 50 The subcommittee's final reports listed a success rate of nearly 90 percent, that is, only 24 of 283 recommendations failed to be accomplished. These varied widely, from urging the rapid completion of public housing, hospitals, and sewage projects, to Chairman Edouard Izac's personal favorite: raising the ice cream quota so that "a young man can come to town and get ice cream instead of hard liquor." 81

Congresswoman Smith had raised issues that would not otherwise have been addressed by the congressional subcommittee or their witnesses. Very few women testified at the Congested Areas Hearings (only 13 of 421 witnesses), most of them as representatives of federal, state, or local authorities. No one spoke for working-class women, whether prostitute or aircraft welder; no one spoke for women and children, except for Smith. Her suggestions for child care, for housing planned for families with two working parents, for flexible hours, for equal pay, and for a recognition that working women worked at least two jobs reflected a sensitivity to women's situations not available to the men on or before the subcommittee. She seemed, too, to raise the consciousness of her colleagues. After a few hearings, Chairman Izac and Congressman Fogarty started sounding like her, seizing the opportunity to point out to industry representatives that women war workers needed assistance, not blame. 82

Margaret Chase Smith's "gender consciousness," her awareness of her position on the committee as "the woman," and her sense of fairness combined to bring about an alternative perspective on women's problems in the congested areas and elsewhere. Because of her concern and her power Smith managed to change the shape of the war's impact on women. Her successes and failures illuminate the complex intersections of gender and power, and demonstrate the limits and possibilities of one woman's leadership in the midst of World War II.

Elected in 1940, a congressional widow stepping into her husband's empty shoes, Smith went on to serve just over four two-year terms in the U.S. House of Representatives ( 1940 to 1948) and four six-year terms in the U.S. Senate ( 1949 to 1973). The bulk of the primary source material for this chapter was provided by the Margaret Chase Smith Library Center, Skowhegan, Maine; hereinafter referred to as the MCSLC.
See Janann Sherman, "'They Either Need These Women or They Do Not': Margaret Chase Smith and the Fight for Regular Status for Women in the Military," Journal of Military History 54 ( January 1990): 47-78.
Hearings were held in Virginia, California, Rhode Island, and Maine. They were published: U.S. House of Representatives, 8th Congress, 1st Session, Investigation of Congested Areas, by a Subcommittee of the Committee on Naval Affairs, Hearings pursuant to H. Res. 30, parts 1-8, respectively (hereafter, I.C.A. Hearings). In March


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