How often have you heard a group of women in their eighties reminisce about their service in World War II? My guess is—never. Out of all the interviews, books, films, and commemorations about World War II, female voices have seldom been heard. This video, funded by the Washington State legislature for use in the schools, and created by Bristol Productions under the direction of Karl Schmidt ’81, remedies this oversight. In it, more than 50 Washington women talk about their service in the state’s shipyards and aircraft factories, as WASP (Women Aircraft Service Pilots), in the Army (WACs), and the Navy (WAVES), as nurses, and as USO personnel. Their reminiscences, coupled with wartime photographs and film footage, create an appealing scrapbook of memories. It is a bit frustrating, because we want to know so much more about each woman than is possible in a video that is only a little over an hour long. Fortunately, full transcripts of each interview are posted on a companion Website, along with lesson plans for teachers and links to other sites.
For women, World War II was a major breakthrough. Before the war, the majority of American women were fulltime housewives, confirming the adage, “women’s place is in the home.” Fewer than 30 percent of women held paid jobs, and they did “women’s work”—service, teaching, and clerical work. When World War II began and several million men were drafted, a shortage of “manpower” quickly developed. Women were eager and willing to fill the gap. It is delightful to see elderly women reminisce in detail about the skills they learned and used as welders, riveters, and mechanics: “my welds never broke” said one woman proudly. This was hard and heavy work, but when one woman’s father told her to complain to her supervisor that her shipyard work was “not a ladylike thing to do,” she laughed. The pride in their skills, recalled more than 60 years later, shines through these interviews.
The women who entered the services shared the same sense of pride and accomplishment. Their eagerness to serve is shown in a story told by Catherine Cresto Vyverberg, who worked before the war to support her mother and younger siblings. Knowing of Catherine’s desire to enlist, her mother went out and got the first paid job of her life so that Dorothy could serve without loss of family income. In every field, including an all-female Marine band, women experienced a mixture of accomplishment and discrimination. One woman recalled that there was a “stigma” attached to female military, owing to the suspicion that they only enlisted to be where the men were. In no branch of the service did women ever completely shake off that aura of sexual innuendo. And within the military, the disapproval of senior officers was quite common, sometimes even preventing women from doing the jobs they had been trained to do. Disbelief that women could actually “do the job” was most frequently experienced by woman pilots, but occurred in other services as well.
Some of the most affecting stories in this video are told by military nurses, accounts of D-Day and the liberation of Buchenwald in particular. But throughout, these women have stories of their wartime experience that are well worth hearing. They are not as diverse as one would like—no African American women were interviewed and a handful of Japanese women speak briefly about internment, but the range of photographs and topics is great. Among those interviewed are some with speech and other disabilities of age, and the producers clearly made an effort not to focus their cameras on the most attractive 80-year-olds. This may seem trivial, but given the youth bias so common in the media, it may be that seeing so many lively and interesting old women will make a deeper impression on students than their wartime reminiscences!
As is well known, when the war ended the men came home, women lost their wartime factory jobs and were discharged from the military, and life reverted to “normal.” As one woman recalled, she was told, “That’s the end of it girls. Go on home.” Except that they never really did, or not in the same way. These 50 women, looking back across the years, celebrate their wartime independence, their accomplishments, and their sense that they changed the world for the American women who followed them.
For more information about During the War The Women Went to Work, e-mail Karl Schmidt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To view a sample chapter, click here.
— Susan Armitage, Professor, WSU Department of History