Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II

Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II

Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II

Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses during World War II

Synopsis

Throughout World War II, when Saturday nights came around, servicemen and hostesses happily forgot the war for a little while as they danced together in USO clubs, which served as havens of stability in a time of social, moral, and geographic upheaval. Meghan Winchell demonstrates that in addition to boosting soldier morale, the USO acted as an architect of the gender roles and sexual codes that shaped the "greatest generation."



Combining archival research with extensive firsthand accounts from among the hundreds of thousands of female USO volunteers, Winchell shows how the organization both reflected and shaped 1940s American society at large. The USO had hoped that respectable feminine companionship would limit venereal disease rates in the military. To that end, Winchell explains, USO recruitment practices characterized white middle-class women as sexually respectable, thus implying that the sexual behavior of working-class women and women of color was suspicious. In response, women of color sought to redefine the USO's definition of beauty and respectability, challenging the USO's vision of a home front that was free of racial, gender, and sexual conflict.



Despite clashes over class and racial ideologies of sex and respectability, Winchell finds that most hostesses benefited from the USO's chaste image. In exploring the USO's treatment of female volunteers, Winchell not only brings the hostesses' stories to light but also supplies a crucial missing piece for understanding the complex ways in which the war both destabilized and restored certain versions of social order.

Excerpt

Rosie the Riveter remains the ubiquitous symbol of World War II’s female patriot. In the popular imagery of the “Good War,” Rosie arguably stands second only to the courageous soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. Today, the War Department’s depiction of Rosie peddling a “We Can Do It!” attitude, with her pouty lips, enviably long eyelashes, and oversized muscular biceps, graces posters, note cards, magnets, coasters, and even pot holders. The proliferation and endurance of this image might prompt one to conclude that immediately following President Franklin Roosevelt’s “A Day That Will Live in Infamy” speech, hordes of American women rushed to the shipyards, seized riveting guns, and went at it. In truth, the majority of American women did not enter the industrial labor force during the war. They found Rosie’s image daunting. Many of these women were like junior USO hostess Nancy Brown. She surmised that hostessing at the Hollywood Canteen “was what I could do. I really was not Rosie the Riveter. I was not one of those women who could go out there and work on an assembly line.” Instead, Nancy worked as a secretary, and in her view hostessing “was the ideal way to do my part in the war effort.” She was not alone.

Historical scholarship has shown how the state and media mobilized women into “men’s” roles, including soldier and industrial worker, during World War II, but little work has been done on the ways in which quasi-state organizations such as the USO mobilized them to perform “women’s” work that did not challenge gender norms. USO hostesses extended private acts of nurturing and caretaking to the public sphere and performed them in USO clubs and canteens. In doing so, they made their usually private work visible and rendered unpaid yet vital services as mothers and sweethearts to the state and the military. This gendered labor helped to humanize the military experience for servicemen. This study reveals how tens of thousands of USO hostesses like Nancy conducted work that helped to maintain the role of the virtuous woman in this time of crisis.

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