U.S. Women on the Home Front in World War II

Article excerpt

THE WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST, Max Lerner, concluded in early 1943 that "when the classic work on the history of women comes to be written, the biggest force for change in their lives will turn out to have been war, [which] curiously ... produces more dislocations in the lives of women who stay at home than of men who go off to fight." As the field of women's history has grown during the last quarter century, many historians have addressed the impact of war, especially World War II, on U.S. women.

Scholars, in their efforts to determine whether World War II was as great a force for change in women's lives as Lerner suggested, have paid considerable attention to the public record. They have sifted through the archives of many wartime agencies as well as other government reports and documents, examined the records of labor unions, analyzed public opinion polls, scrutinized popular fiction, read widely in contemporary newspapers and magazines, and investigated perceptions of womanhood in popular culture. Although the specific conclusions of these scholars differ, they agree that the wartime changes that affected women were not lasting.(1)

Our understanding of the larger meaning of World War II has benefited immensely from these ground-breaking studies. However, by examining private rather than public records, the events of World War II appear to have had a much more dramatic and far-reaching effect on U.S. women than has been previously thought. Women's wartime letters provide an important missing piece to the World War II puzzle, for they offer the first significant opportunity to incorporate the voices of U.S. women into our account of the Second World War.(2)

Approximately 30,000 letters written by more than 500 American women have been collected. The letter writers range in age from six to ninety-six and represent a geographic and socioeconomic cross-section of life in the United States: secretaries, clerks, teachers, librarians, factory workers, women in uniform, housewives, and volunteer war-workers. Most of the correspondence was posted to enlisted personnel or junior grade officers. In short, the letters were written by "ordinary" Americans to other "ordinary" Americans. The majority of the letters were written by persons who can be described as "American-identified." However, many of the letter writers were Italian Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, Jewish Americans, African Americans, and from a number of other ethnic groups, such as Finns, Scots, and Czechs. (African Americans are underrepresented in the collection.) It is impossible to determine whether the letters are representative of the billions of letters penned by U.S. women during World War II. Yet, based on the "methodological principle of saturation," this is dearly a substantial sampling of the various types of letters written by U.S. women during this period.(3)

The mark of the censor was expected to be prominent in many of the letters. On occasion, domestic mail was censored in an effort to locate saboteurs or to prevent sensitive information about troop training and transport, the location of war plants, and even the weather from reaching the enemy. However, there is almost no evidence of censors' marks. Because of the important role mail played in building morale, many of the letters might be anticipated to have had an artificially upbeat quality to them. But many letters frankly discussed the fears, frustrations, and often harsh realities of home-front life. Further, the wartime letters of U.S. women provide dear evidence of the myriad ways in which they supported and participated in the war effort. Commentary about rationing, war-bond rallies, salvage campaigns, blood drives, civil defense work, planting and harvesting victory gardens, Red Cross work, hostessing at United Service Organizations (USO), and many other volunteer activities championed by women regularly appear in the letters. …