We Are a College at War: Women Working for Victory in World War II

By Fraterrigo, Elizabeth | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview
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We Are a College at War: Women Working for Victory in World War II


Fraterrigo, Elizabeth, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


We Are a College at War: Women Working for Victory in World War II. By Mary Weaks-Baxter, Christine Bruun, and Catherine Forslund. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 236, notes, bibliography, index. Cloth, $29.95.)

Rockford College, a small liberal arts school in Rockford, Illinois, provides a unique window onto women's wartime activities and the impact of World War II on American higher education. The authors, all Rockford College faculty members, argue that the one-time women's college embraced the legacy of Jane Addams - Hull House founder, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and Rockford alumna - to nurture among students a gendered but nonetheless empowering "politics of care" (p. 3) that linked women's civic engagement to democracy. More than a matter of individual sacrifice or a show of womanly support for one's country and its fighting men, the wartime contributions and activism of Rockford College students, faculty, and alumnae, the authors demonstrate, marked a concerted effort to serve as responsible, engaged citizens.

Thematic chapters drawing on campus publications, scrapbooks, and other archival materials explore the varied but ubiquitous presence of the war at Rockford College. As war loomed, news of crisis in Europe and Asia from pen pals and others living abroad reached students and circulated in the campus newspaper. Following Pearl Harbor, campus debates over American neutrality gave way to pervasive wartime activity. College president Mary Ashby Cheeks, a role model for Rockford College women and a driving force behind much of their activism, embraced the war as a "crisis of opportunity" that would allow Rockford women to assume a public role as vital participants in the fight for democracy. Students took a "Victory Pledge," affirming their commitment to the war effort and to educating and preparing themselves for fitness as future peacetime leaders. In the meantime, they learned first aid, worked in local hospitals and defense-industry daycare centers, and volunteered at USO clubs serving soldiers stationed nearby at Camp Grant. Rockford women bought war bonds, participated in book drives, wrote letters, and sent care packages to servicemen overseas. Curriculum and campus developments also brought the war home. An "Earn and Learn" work-study program allowed young women to split time between classroom and defense work at Woodward Governor, a local manufacturer of airplane propeller components. Refugees from Europe and from the United States' Japanese internment camps embodied the dislocation, turmoil, and injustice of war.

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