Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941-1945

Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941-1945

Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941-1945

Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941-1945

Synopsis

Drawing on war propaganda, popular advertising, voluminous government records, and hundreds of letters and other accounts written by women in the 1940s, Melissa A. McEuen examines how extensively women's bodies and minds became "battlegrounds" in the U.S. fight for victory in World War II. Women were led to believe that the nation's success depended on their efforts--not just on factory floors, but at their dressing tables, bathroom sinks, and laundry rooms. They were to fill their arsenals with lipstick, nail polish, creams, and cleansers in their battles to meet the standards of ideal womanhood touted in magazines, newspapers, billboards, posters, pamphlets and in the rapidly expanding pinup genre. Scrutinized and sexualized in new ways, women understood that their faces, clothes, and comportment would indicate how seriously they took their responsibilities as citizens. McEuen also shows that the wartime rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and postwar opportunity coexisted uneasily with the realities of a racially stratified society. The context of war created and reinforced whiteness, and McEuen explores how African Americans grappled with whiteness as representing the true American identity. Using perspectives of cultural studies and feminist theory, Making War, Making Women offers a broad look at how women on the American home front grappled with a political culture that used their bodies in service of the war effort.

Excerpt

Several years ago, on a visit to the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, I was struck by the faces and poses of women in photographs from World War II. Their smiles and other gestures conveyed a confidence and ease that set them apart from women pictured elsewhere in the gallery. As a historian of photography, I knew what their generation thought about cameras, snapshots, and the bevy of picture magazines available on American newsstands; they had witnessed the growth of a visual culture in the United States and understood the influence of photographs in daily life. But I wondered how these wartime women wanted to be seen and whose rules dictated their appearance.

The hours I spent at Arlington brought into focus an earlier, more intimate exchange, prompting further questions about women, appearances, and power. After I had my long blonde hair bobbed, various family members reacted with shock and dismay. My distraught mother exclaimed, “But your hair was your trademark!” I wondered if, as a published historian and recently tenured professor, I needed or wanted such a “trademark” to represent me. To loved ones, I had too nonchalantly dispensed with a traditional symbol of femininity and altered my identity as the woman (more aptly, the girl) they knew. I thought, “If this could happen now, in a new century and a new millennium, what must it have been like for a woman to challenge expectations in the 1940s…to don trousers, a military uniform, or a two-piece bathing suit for the first time, to cut her hair, to take up a ‘man’s job’ in a factory, to undo or turn her back on what had marked her or had been marked out for her?” Could she mollify her critics by claiming it was all for the war effort? Or would this invite even more criticism? How would refashioning herself meet political needs, social obligations, or personal desires?

These experiences coincided with an observation that more and more of my students understood the Second World War through popular histories and other media celebrating the “Greatest Generation.” The various fiftieth-anniversary commemorations of the war in the 1990s had helped to promote a huge industry captivating millions of readers and viewers. But the accumulating stories seemed to narrow the past in two ways—by over-masculinizing the war years with bands of brothers and citizen soldiers, and by reshaping the American narrative largely . . .

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