Fighting on the “Kitchen Front”

Bullets, mortars, potatoes? Victory in World War II required the help of every British citizen, and British food. Though the government tried to avoid becoming embroiled in another world war, the British Empire declared war on Germany in September 1939. With the men abroad once again, women re-entered the factories, took up plows and axes in the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps, and a select few even went behind enemy lines as intelligence operatives. The number of women who fought on the “Kitchen Front” was even larger. British wartime food programs demonstrate wars are not won solely by soldiers in the field. Civilians, especially women, played an important role in continuing the fight. The British Empire went to war, and so did its food.

Napoleon Bonaparte famously said, “an army marches on its stomach,” but this also applies to civilians. One lasting lesson from the previous war was the importance of planning for the possible interruption of supply lines. With its Navy deployed to other fronts, Britain could easily be off from the rest of Europe, and access to food. Mindful of the bread queues that wound around the nation during WWI, the government reconstituted the Ministry of Food in 1940 and appointed Frederick Marquis, Lord Woolton as Minister of Food. Tasked with ensuring the soldiers at the front and those at home were fed, Woolton attacked the problem from several angles.

One of the Ministry’s most important programs involved food rationing. The government began planning a ration system in 1936, but it was not instituted until 1940. Each citizen received a ration book that allowed them to buy a certain amount of a rationed foods per month. The January rations limited bacon, sugar, and butter; meat was added to the list in March; and the list of rationed foods expanded to include cooking fat, cheese, jam, tea, and milk by July. Another system, the points system, was more flexible, giving each citizen a certain number of points to be used on any (and any amount) of points-rationed foods. The ration system ensured food was distributed equitably and meant everyone, from fishmonger to Royal Family, had the same access to food and paid the same prices.

The “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged citizens to grow their own food to supplement their diet. “This is a food war,” said Woolton. “The battle on the kitchen front cannot be won without help from the kitchen garden.”[1] Home gardening became a patriotic duty, not just a pastime. Gardens cropped up in allotments throughout the country. Other campaigns encouraged eliminating as much food waste as possible and saving oils and fats so they could be used to manufacture explosives.

In addition to overseeing rationing programs and encouraging domestic efforts to grow food and eliminate food waste, the Ministry of Food offered guidance to help home cooks compensate for the dietary changes by promoting nutritious unrationed foods. Cartoon characters Potato Pete and Dr. Carrot were central to marketing this to children, appearing on posters and singing songs on the wireless. The tunes were catchy, and the lyrics were even catchier:

Potatoes new, potatoes old

Potato (in a salad) cold

Potatoes baked or mashed or fried

Potatoes whole, potatoes pied

Enjoy them all, including chips

Remembering spuds don’t come in ships![2]

Government-sponsored radio programs also targeted the children’s mothers. “The Kitchen Front” radio spot gave home cooks recipes and ideas for stretching their family’s rations. Carrot roly-poly, carrot marmalade, carrot candy, carrot sausage roll: the final products did not always match the recipes’ creativity; British home cooks’ ingenuity in rising to the challenge was also unmatched.

The “Kitchen Front” also helped spread one of the British government’s most pervasive and abiding propaganda campaigns. The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, began an extensive aerial bombardment campaign to break the will of British citizens and force the government to sue for peace. The Ministry of Information began blitz of its own, spreading the half-truth that British pilots had exceptional night vision because of the amount of carrots they ate. The vitamins in carrots do support vision health, but a pilot would likely turn orange before he ate enough carrots for significant improvement. The intended message was British pilots would have no problem responding to German air raids, but the claims soon spread to the home front.

“My first three nights of ambulance driving…were fraught with anxiety that I should have to give up the job through not being able to see well enough,” said Margaret Grant in her February 28, 1941 broadcast. “I resorted to my food chart for guidance, and after taking a large glass of milled carrot and sliced tomato each day for a week, I drove with ease and comfort.”[3] Another host made similar remarks during her August 9, 1941 broadcast, calling carrots “good blackout food.”[4] There is no way to confirm how many Germans were actually fooled by the campaign, but carrots have been linked to better eyesight ever since.

Coping with food rationing and other social changes was difficult, but also helped bring communities together. The Ministry of Food affirmed the value of women’s contributions and the importance of every single citizen in war. Men left for the front lines, but the civilians at home manned the Kitchen Front.

[1] Lord Woolton quoted in K. Annabelle Smith, “A WWII Propaganda Campaign Popularized the Myth that Carrots Help You See in the Dark,” Smithsonian Magazine, August 13, 2013, accessed October 9, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-wwii-propaganda-campaign-popularized-the-myth-that-carrots-help-you-see-in-the-dark-28812484/.

[2] Song lyrics quoted in “History Cookbook,” CookIt!, accessed October 4, 2018, http://cookit.e2bn.org/historycookbook/20-97 -world-war-2-Food-facts.html.

[3] Margaret Grant, “The Kitchen Front, 28th February 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

[4] Mrs. Hudson, “The Kitchen Front, 9 August 1941,” in “The Kitchen Front World War Two Recipes and Commentary,” from the UK National Archives and transcribed by the World Carrot Museum.

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Arming the “Boys:” The Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant, Penniman, Virginia

Mobilization for World War I allowed women previously unheard-of opportunities to take on non-traditional roles. Some served abroad as nurses and yeomen; others took up the ploughshares the men had traded for swords by working on family farms and with the Women’s Land Army. Traditional activities like sewing and knitting also took on new importance as the items were shipped overseas. Women also took over the factory jobs left open by the citizens turned soldiers, helping keep the American war machine rolling.

Beginning in 1915, DuPont chemical company directed all its manufacturing and production towards the war effort. Social crisis tends to trump political scruples, so the company’s recent antitrust troubles did not hinder its consolidation of a monopoly over American munitions production. DuPont’s thirty-seventh munitions plant, the Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant, was located on the York River near Williamsburg, Virginia.

The Seven Pines plant paid high wages for hazardous work. Workers were responsible for loading TNT into ammunition shells and bagging gunpowder for shipment. Despite the potential danger, hundreds of men and women flocked to the plant in search of employment. A village quickly grew up around the plant as DuPont constructed houses for its workforce: Penniman, Virginia. At its height, Seven Plains plant employees numbered 10,000. The population of Penniman numbered 10,000–20,000.[1]

Female workers made up most of the workforce at Seven Pines. Women of all walks of life were represented, and it was not unusual for middle- and lower-class women to sew and fill powder bags side-by-side with Virginia’s First Lady, Marguerite Davis.[2] Fashion norms also relaxed a bit as a concession to the war effort. Long skirts were impractical in factories, particularly in factories filled with flammable and potentially explosive materials. DuPont issued trousers to the woman munitions workers of Seven Pines. To maintain propriety and keep the clothing suitably feminine, they were referred to as “womanalls” and “trouserettes.”[3]

The inscription on the metal badge housed at the VAARNG Mullins Armory in Richmond, Virginia, reads “WOMEN’S MUNITION RESERVE SEVEN PINES BAG LOADING PLANT.” Badges issued for other DuPont munitions plants took similar forms. Plant badges served several purposes: some were practical, some rather grisly. As metal withstands an explosion better than flesh, numbered badges could help identify a worker killed during a plant accident. It is probable the “68” on the middle of the badge was the identification number for a female worker.

badge

Figure 1. Women’s Munition Reserve Seven Pines Bag Loading Plant badge. Photo by author.

Plant badges provided a different kind of protection for male workers. Being branded a “slacker,” or man who did not serve or did not work towards the war effort, was almost as bad as being a German. Wearing a factory badge demonstrated to the community you were doing your part.

The United States Navy assumed control of the Seven Pines plant in August 1918. On October 12, it hosted a celebration for the opening of the United States Government Bag Loading Plant at Seven Pines, removing “women’s” from the name. Removing the “women” was in step with the post-war political and social effort to “return to normalcy.” Part of the American normal was returning veterans to their pre-war occupations and sending women back to hearth and home.

munition poster

Figure 2. Frederic H. Spiegel, 1918. Library of Virginia Special Collections Archive.

The Liberty Day celebration was short-lived, as Penniman did not escape the Spanish flu epidemic raging across the nation. The local hospital could not keep up with the number of sick men, women, and children who entered its doors. Local coroners and casket makers also struggled to keep up with the dead. War mobilization ended with Armistice Day, and the Seven Pines plant was no longer needed. The families of Penniman left in search of employment, in some cases taking their DuPont-constructed houses with them by floating them down the river.

By the mid-1920s, Penniman had disappeared. The Women’s Munition Plant badge is tangible evidence of a place that can no longer be found on a Virginia map. While most of the women’s individual stories also disappeared, the badge gives us tangible evidence of another way Virginia women broke through gender boundaries to support their country and their Commonwealth.

Notes

[1] Martha W. McCartney, James City County: Keystone of the Commonwealth, (James City County, Virginia: Donning Company Publishing, 1997).

[2] Virginia Women and the First World War: Records and Resources at the Library of Virginia,” Library of Virginia Archival and Information Services, accessed August 27, 2018, https://www.lva.virginia.gov/public/guides/WomenofWWI.pdf, 2

[3] Ibid.

Book Review: They Fought Alone

Glass, Charles. They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.

Spies and spy craft have long captured the imagination. Agent 007. Emma Peel and John Steed. Even Maxwell Smart and Agent 99. Espionage is intriguing, especially when we are privy to the tricks of the trade. It is entertaining, especially when we know our heroes and heroines will be saved from a dastardly fate at the very last second and live to spy another day. Real life is not like the movies. James Bond actor Roger Moore once explained the difference saying, “You can’t be a real spy and have everybody in the world know who you are and what your drink is.” Transparency is a luxury that gets spies killed.

In They Fought Alone: The True Story of the Starr Brothers, British Secret Agents in Nazi-Occupied France, Charles Glass tells the story of two brothers who gathered intelligence for the British during WWII. Adolf Hitler’s September 1939 invasions of Poland and Czechoslovakia prompted Britain’s declaration of war, but that declaration was not an impediment to his march across Europe. Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands were the next to fall. Planning to “set Europe ablaze” by bolstering local resistance movements and gather the intelligence needed to win the war against Nazi Germany, the British created the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in July 1940. Taking his title from Colonel Maurice Buckmaster’s memoir, Glass’s book highlights the experiences and contributions of two SOE spies: George and John Starr. “Theirs would be a lonely struggle, cut off from the wives and children they loved, deprived of the comradeship of a regular military unit, and on their own behind enemy lines,” writes Glass.

If male spies “fought alone,” where did that leave their female counterparts? According to Glass, George Starr disliked female SOE agent Odette Sansom from the beginning, also complaining he was “put in charge of three bloody women” for his first overseas assignment. Starr later complains Sansom made unwelcome sexual advances, implying her espionage was more horizontal than on the up and up. The British and French governments reached different opinions regarding Sansom, however, awarding her the George Cross and making her a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.

Sansom survived torture and imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. She fought the enemy, but also the prejudices and biases of her own side. Some female spies did use sex appeal to their advantage in gathering intelligence about enemy troop movements and plans, but we cannot say all female spies employed “sexpionage” because of shortcomings in character and moral standing. Sex can be a tool, just like encryption machines and short-wave radios, and the spy who does not use all the tools at her disposal is not that effective a spy at all.

A biography tells the truth about history as it was perceived by that person. Glass is correct to include Starr’s biases against Sansom in his book because it was a true part of Starr’s experience in the SOE. They Fought Alone should be read in conjunction with other histories of the SOE, including some of the recent works that focus on the women who served. This will give the most balanced view of the men and women who fought alone during WWII. The Allies fought against the tyranny of the Axis powers but held onto their own prejudices. The only thing more dangerous than being a spy at war was being a female spy at war. The enemy inherently distrusted because you were an enemy; your own side inherently distrusted you because you were a woman.

KMS, 22 August 2018

 

Book Reviews: How Fascism Works by Jason Stanley and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

Stanley, James. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. New York: Random House Publishing, 2018.

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

When and if fascism comes to America it will not be labeled “made in Germany”; it will not be marked with a swastika; it will not even be called fascism; it will be called, of course, “Americanism…” The high-sounding phrase “the American way” will be used by interested groups intent on profit, to cover a multitude of sins against the American and Christian tradition, such sins as lawless violence, tear gas and shotguns, denial of civil liberties

Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion,” September 11, 1938[1]

The past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

Attributed to Mark Twain

History’s propensity to rhyme has always intrigued me; more recently it keeps me up at nights. You can ignore the individual warning signs only too long before they coalesce into a sustained feeling of dread. We can hope, as Martin Luther King, Jr. did, for the moral arc of the universe to bend towards justice, but more often human nature bends towards its baser instincts. Racism and prejudice is more prevalent than ever. In 2017, a politician used FDR’s policy of Japanese internment during WWII to justify a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries. The quest to “Make America Great Again” is a policy of regression to eras when only white was right, women knew and were kept in their place, and anyone who didn’t fit the norm was criticized and ostracized.

Some historians see even more disturbing overtones in the current rhyme. In their recent books, Timothy Snyder and Jason Stanley sound a haunting alarm about the overwhelming similarities between current American domestic and foreign policies and those of fascist sites in the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Snyder and Stanley take different approaches to the topic, but each is effective, to the point, and as my Dad would say, scary as all get out. Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century reads as a handbook for resisting authoritarianism. “History does not repeat,” he writes, “but it does instruct.” (Snyder, 9).

Stanley, on the other hand, does not shrink from making pointed comparisons between Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and Trump’s America. How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them is an indictment of the ways in which the President’s open nativism, racism, and sexism have opened the floodgates for others to openly express the same. Stanley does not place the blame for America’s woes solely on the President, however. He also indicts the whole of the President’s administration and Republican-majority Congress for aiding and abetting the presidential view of “Americanism.” Stanley’s narrative on the Republican response (or lack thereof) to the President’s boast to “grab ‘em by the p***y” should chill anyone who supports women’s rights to the bone.

Stanley’s and Snyder’s cogent use of historical evidence and documents makes their arguments even more persuasive. Stanley’s understanding of Mein Kampf probably rivals that of the author himself. Historians and layman readers who support the current Administration’s policies will no doubt say when you go looking for unicorns, you will undoubtedly find them. We still cannot afford to ignore the patterns Stanley and Snyder reveal. We cannot afford to ignore the ways in which our current rhyme fits nicely into the goose-stepped past. We cannot afford not to ask to what “American way” we are dedicated to returning: “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free,” or “I know nothing but my Country, my whole Country, and nothing but my Country.”

KMS

16 July 2018

Cartoon from University of California San Diego Library Digital Collections, https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb4164680v

[1] Halford E. Luccock, “Keeping Life Out of Confusion” The New York Times, 11 September 1938), 15.

Book Review: Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History

O’Brien, Keith. Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

In Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History, Keith O’Brien reminds the reader that only one of the names of the women he profiles will be familiar: Amelia Earhart. Even then, Earhart is known more for his defeat by than her conquest of the air. The “friendly sky” described by modern commercial airlines is in reality a jealous mistress: aviators that do not give her total attention or fail to decipher the roles that changing conditions play on flight patterns and aircraft will not enjoy her company very long. The race to tame the sky claimed many lives,  male and female.

One of the most poignant episodes in the book comes when an interviewer asks Earhart why she wants to fly. “Why do men ride horses?” she replies. She seems stunned by the idea that women could not share the thirst of adventure felt by men. By the end of the chapter, Earhart’s contribution to that flight would be reduced to that of ballast, with several male aviators claiming it would have been better if she had been left behind and two hundred gallons of fuel loaded in her place. Aviator instruction and training for men and women were the same: they had to complete the same education and tasks to earn flying licenses. Flying while female, however, was often seen as a bigger liability than flying while intoxicated. The various commercial schemes women undertook to be able to get in the cockpit also made them appear to be more interested in fame and fortune than in flying.

Fly Girlslends new lyrics to a familiar tune. As women’s history gains readers and with them, profitability, we can expect to see many more histories of forgotten women in male-dominated spaces. Women made important contributions to early aviation and would continue to make contributions as pilots, mechanics, and engineers during the world wars. They laid the groundwork for pilots like Tammie Jo Shultz, the former Navy fighter pilot who landed a Southwest plane after it lost one of its engines after takeoff earlier this year. O’Brien’s book also reminds us that for every Shultz and Earhart, there are thousands of female pilots who never make it into the papers.

KMS

June 2018

Book Review: Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II by Jane Dinsmoore

Dinsmoore, Jane. Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishing Group, 2018.

The only thing we commoners like better than a royal wedding is a royal scandal. The magazines and newspapers who ooh-ed and aah-ed over the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle saw no irony in publishing snarky articles about supposed rows with her new family members a week later. The British royal family lives in a gilded cage, and for all the riches, pomp, and splendor, we would do well to remember they are also people. In Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II, author Jane Dinsmoore allows us to see the world’s longest-reigning monarch as just that: a regular person born into unbelievable and sometimes overwhelming responsibility.

Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1926, Princess Elizabeth was known as Lillibet by close family members. She was third in line for the throne, but this could all change if her uncle David finally married and produced an heir. She loved horses, participating in Girl Guards activities (the British version of America’s Girl Scouts), and putting up with the theatrics of her little sister, Margaret. She lived a charmed life as the apple of her parent’s eye, and if she begrudged sharing them with their royal duties, she said little. Ten years later, everything changed. With King Edward VIII’s abdication of the throne, Lillibet’s father became king and she became the heir presumptive. The princess began learning statecraft at one of the most difficult points of British history: the abdication threatened the monarchy as an institution while the coming war with Germany would test the monarchy’s place in governing the country.

Pulling from interviews, memoirs, and other writings, Dinsmoore’s writing sometimes resembles a day planner more than a narrative, but her attention to detail is phenomenal. Elizabeth II’s childhood and adulthood could be seen as a type of school for scandal, perhaps preparing her for the issues that would crop up with her children’s and grandchildren’s marriages. George VI’s handling of the continued machinations of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson (made Duke and Duchess of Windsor after his abdication) and discovery of Mountbatten designs on the monarchy (introduced with Elizabeth’s relationship with Prince Phillip of Greece) no doubt impacted how Queen Elizabeth would deal with her children’s affairs, failed marriages, divorces, and remarriages.

“When I was a little boy I read about a fairy princess, and there she is,” wrote American President Harry Truman, but there is so much more to Elizabeth Windsor’s story. The Queen Elizabeth seen during the Trooping of the Colour, royal weddings, celebrations, and memorial ceremonies is also the woman who battled insecurity and loved fiercely. She was once a young girl, a young wife, a young mother. The beautiful grounds of Buckingham Palace and Balmoral Castle were once torn apart by Luftwaffe airstrikes, their lights dimmed and dining tables bare as the royal family stayed true to the austerity measures they asked of their people. When we go looking for fairy stories, we will find them. The truth is harder to locate and often harder to take. Dinsmoore’s Princess Elizabeth is a girl hoping to meet the expectations of her family and nation while also wanting to make her own mark on it all. Perhaps she was not that different from any young woman on the cusp of taking the world by storm.

KMS

Book Review: A World on Edge by Daniel Schönpflug

Schönpflug, Daniel. A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age. New York: Henry Holt and Co. Metropolitan Books, 2018.

Daniel Schönpflug’s book, A World on Edge: The End of the Great War and the Dawn of a New Age (English translation of Comets years. 1918: the world on the rise) begins with an ominous image: an effigy of Kaiser Wilhelm strung up between two New York City streets. With the Great War at an end, the survivors had to learn how to navigate the world it created. Some, like the man represented in effigy, faded into the background, while others used the lessons of protracted war and fractured peace to claim the spotlight.

Abandoning the traditional focus on disarmament, redeployment, and reparations, Schönpflug constructs his history of the post-WWI period using the stories and experiences of people who lived it. He tells the stories of former political figures (Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, Matthias Erzberger) alongside those of rising political stars (Harry S. Truman, Nguyen Tat Thanh), and trades stories of fading revolutionary movements (T.E. Lawrence and the Middle East) with those just beginning to catch flame (Nguyen Tat Thanh in Vietmam, Terence MacSwiney in Ireland). Each point has a counterpoint, but there is also commonality in the lives lived after Armistice. Russian White Army soldier Marina Yurlowa speaks of the same type of battle fatigue expressed by U.S. doughboy Alvin York. Artists Walter Gropius and George Grosz hoped their art would help them make sense of the new world; Gropius found purpose in construction, while Grosz saw only nothingness. The men would become leaders of the Bauhaus and Dadaist artistic movements, respectively.

Schönpflug’s inclusion of women (Virginia Woolf, journalist Louise Weiss, Moina Michael, the aforementioned Marina Yurlowa) was a welcome surprise. He gives their stories share equal space with those of the men, a huge departure from many historical treatments that relegate women’s wartime and post-war experiences to a separate “women’s” chapter. The inclusion of a female soldier is especially heartening as Russian historiography has only recently restored a place for armed women in its history.

The author’s new approaches towards the post-war period does not preclude him from exploring the ways the Treaty of Versailles laid the groundwork for the rise of National Socialism. Schönpflug prefers to stoke a slow burn, showing the reader how individuals can go from elation over the end of armed hostilities to disillusionment over the world the war made. Nations and individuals alike placed their hopes in salvation through Wilsonian diplomacy and the League of Nations. Wilson’s rejection of the League and its resulting failure would lead them to different ideas and different saviors.

Kierkegaard wrote “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Schönpflug’s history reminds us that “forwards” contains multiple directions, and people understand their present in multiple ways. For some, the swinging Kaiser represented the freedom to break free from old traditions, ideas, and constraints. Others found the peace did not live up to its promise and inclined towards despair. All agreed a world begot by violence would not easily shake the lessons of its cradle. Post-war Europe was on the edge of a new world; the next few years would determine whether it remained mired in the ashes or rose like a phoenix.

kms 2018

Burning Down the House: Putting American Women in their Place Following WWII

World War II changed a multitude of things, but not American gender norms and stereotypes. The war reinforced the differences between men and women and deepened the power struggle. Allan M. Winkler drew a direct correlation between women’s involvement in the war effort and the development of the women’s rights movement, but this only tells part of the story.[1] It was not participation, but the gender-based barriers and limits to women’s participation in the war effort that reinvigorated the women’s civil rights movement. “Utilizing American woman power was a matter of military expediency,” wrote Michaela M. Hampf in “‘Dykes’ or ‘Whores’: Sexuality and the Women’s Army Corps in the United States during World War II.”[2] Expediency does not connote acceptance or appreciation, a distinction that followed women throughout the war. “Opponents to even a temporary participation of women felt that not only the efficiency of the military was threatened, but also the traditional system of male dominance and the roles of female homemaker and male breadwinner” continued Hampf.[3] In other words, women who did not stick to hearth and home were seen as more likely to burn down the house than to keep the home fires burning. The response to the possible subversion of traditional gender roles was an increased effort to keep women in their place.

One effective way to reinforce the traditional structure was to play up the differences between men and women by highlighting the ways in which women could never measure up to the ideal represented by American manhood. Low wages and low expectations concerning the duration of female employment were blatant reminders of women’s worth in the workplace relative to their male counterparts; others were less transparent. Articles on industry beauty contests, fashion shows, and “war fashion tips for feminine safety” shared pages with war reports in the monthly newsletters of a New England shipyard, for example.[4] These articles framed women workers as both “helpless” and “glamorous,” two decidedly nondesirable traits in workers meant to keep the economy and the war effort on track.[5]

Media depictions took contradictory representations of women even further. Women were depicted in images like “Rosie the Riveter,” but were also prominent in posters warning soldiers of venereal disease, “penis propaganda” that implied any woman could present a threat to manhood.[6] Male promiscuity is excused, accepted, and even expected, but female promiscuity threatened the health of American society and of its fighting men. The “virgin/whore binary” (coined by Lisa Wade in her essay for Sociological Images) was not limited to factory work or propaganda.[7] Women who served in military capabilities had to be careful not to be too ambitious lest they be branded as lesbians, prostitutes, or a combination of both. Linda Grant DePauw noted more work on military prostitution has been published than on women on who served as combat soldiers during the war.[8] The relative lack of research on women’s combat service compared to their illicit sexual service preserves the hypersexualized “otherness” of women in war, reminding us historians are not immune from the social norms and cultural mores of the environment in which they research and write.

Participation in the WWII workforce did not magically give women agency, nor did it open society’s eyes to their worth and abilities. If it had, there would have been no need for the women’s civil rights movement. Society does not change on its own, and the process is brutal. Some women simply could not reconcile the “new sense of self” and “self-reliance” fostered by working outside of the home with the societal expectation that they would “cheerfully leap back to home” when the men returned from war.[9] As Dellie Hahne told Studs Terkel in an interview for his “The Good War:” An Oral History of World War II, “a lot of women said, Screw that noise. ‘Cause they had a taste of making her own money, a taste of spending their own money, making their own decisions.”[10] As the hands that rocked the cradle learned their hands could handle many other tasks, they were not content to go back to how things were. The war had changed them, but it was up to them to change their world.

[1] Allan M. Winkler, “The World War II Homefront,” History Now: The Journal of the Gilder Lehman Institute, The Gilder Lehman Institute of American History, accessed December 12, 2016, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/world-war-ii/essays/world-war-ii-home-front.

[2] Michaela M. Hampf, “‘Dykes’ or ‘Whores’: Sexuality and the Women’s Army Corps in the United States during World War II.” Women’s Studies International Forum 27 (2004): 13-30, accessed December 14, 2016, EBSCOHost., 13.

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] Jane Marcellus, “Bo’s’n’s Whistle: Representing ‘Rosie the Riveter’ on the Job,” American Journalism 22, no. 2 (2005): 83-108, accessed November 28, 2016, EBSCOHost., 94.

[5] Ibid.

[6] See http://www.cnn.com/2015/08/25/health/wwii-vd-posters-penis-propaganda.

[7] Lisa Ward, “The Virgin/Whore Binary in World War II Propaganda,” Sociological Images, June 15, 2011, accessed December 15, 2016, https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/06/15/the-virginwhore-binary-in-world-war-ii-vd-propaganda/.

[8] Linda Grant DePauw, Battle Cries and Lullabies: Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 262.

[9] Winkler 352; Terkel, 120.

[10] Studs Terkel, “The Good War:” An Oral History of World War II. (New York: The New Press, 2011). Kindle edition.

The Point of No Return

There were no turning points in the Civil War. There were, however, several turning points identified after the war. Determining a “turning point” is an academic exercise: we see the events that determined the ultimate outcome of the war only after we know the ultimate outcome. A turning point is, as historian Erik Rau described, “ultimately a construct of historical reflection.”[1] Historian Carl Becker went a step further in a 1926 speech to the American Historical Association, describing a turning point as a “symbol, a simple statement which is a generalization of a thousand and one simpler facts which we do not for the moment care to use.”[2]

The symbol a historian chooses depends on the outcome she wishes to highlight. Social historians interpret Antietam as a turning point because the Union victory gave Lincoln the impetus to proclaim the emancipation of slaves in areas in rebellion of the Union. The Union’s hard-won victory over Vicksburg could be seen as an economic turning point because it effectively broke the Confederacy in two along the Mississippi, further stressing already over-extended Confederate supply lines.[3] Gettysburg, on the other hand, could be understood as a military turning point because it demonstrated General Grant’s ability to definitively defeat Lee on the battlefield.[4] It is also considered the “high watermark of the Confederacy,” a characterization that only makes sense in hindsight as we can only recognize the Confederacy’s highest point in reference to its lowest point, Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Turning points–symbols–are very personal things: one hundred fifty years later, historians continue debating the relative importance of individual battles. Gary Gallagher, for example, rejects the importance of Vicksburg and Gettysburg in favor of the Seven Days Battles, writing Gettysburg “looms largest in the public imagination as the war’s grand turning point…(but) affected the long term-shape of the war relatively little” while Vicksburg “generated a greater emotional than military result.”[5]

These debates can get historians into trouble as it can be very difficult to requite the knowledge gifted by historical hindsight with the information Americans had at the time. A turning point, Rau reminds us, is not something that “reveals itself to the people living through it at the time.”[6] The soldiers fighting at Antietam, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and countless other battles, did not know the tide of battle shifted as they took and left the field.

As a budding military historian focused more on war’s effects on society than how they were fought, I am much more interested in the war’s point of no return than in the war’s various turning points. In 1861, the North and South alike anticipated a speedy end to the conflict. Twelve months of battle proved this expectation dead wrong. Union and Confederate corpses littered the battlefield of Shiloh in alarming numbers, yet somehow the armies’ determination to keep fighting did not die. Grant responded to a demoralizing Confederate attack at Shiloh on April 6, 1862 with his own counterattack, telling one of his officers that retreat was not an option: “Retreat? No. I propose to attack at daylight and whip them.”[7] Soldiers seemed to share the same dogged determination despite the horrors they witnessed. “If my life is spared I will continue in my country’s service until this rebellion is put down, should it be ten years,” wrote a Union soldier after the battle of Shiloh.[8] Fifteen months and thousands of casualties letter, another soldier’s correspondence echoes the same. Concluding a letter to his family written after the Battle of Gettysburg, Lieutenant William Wheeler of the 13th New York Battery wrote,

“The time may vary a few months, a few years, or even a few decades, but the job will be settled and that all right too. I am…ready to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things for the cause, knowing that if we do so, we also, like Charity, shall never fail.”[9]

Shiloh was a wakeup call to the North and South, but the soldiers also experienced it as a point of no return. It was their first taste of the brutal battles to come, yet it did not deter them from fighting. Whether their motivation was honor, moral conviction, or some other amorphous justification, the soldiers fought on. Both sides knew the short war they predicted was simply not possible: that bridge was crossed and burned. Something changed around Pittsburg Landing in Spring 1862. As the armies progressed to Antietam, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg, they did not know the war was shifting in favor of Union victory, but the battle experiences of 1862 and 1863 gave rise to different soldiers and different armies. In contrast to the “turning points” identified by historians years after the fact, the renewed determination to keep fighting despite the brutality, trying conditions, and uncertainty experienced after Shiloh was “reveal(ed) to the people living through it at the time.”[10] As poet Walt Whitman wrote in 1883,

“Future years will never know the seething help and black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession War…the real war will never get in the books…The actual soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness…will never be written.”[11]

Amid all this speculation I also wonder how women experienced the inertia of the war. Their experiences were very different from those of the men, but no less difficult and certainly of no less importance. How did one feel the war on the homefront, especially as the line between homefront and battlefront blurred? “I do not write often now – not for want of something to say, but from a loathing of all I see and hear. Why dwell upon it?” wrote diarist Mary Chestnut in 1865.[12] These words demonstrate Chestnut’s own feeling of loss and awareness of an ending, but how did Northern women feel? Or the emancipated slave women? Did they sense the beginning of the end or recognize the turning of the tide?

Historians are quite adept at finding “the few great battles,” but they sometimes overlook the minutia of individual experience. The difference between a turning point and a point of no return is quite simple, really: one we find in the words of historians, the other in the words of the soldiers themselves.

 

[1] Erik Rau quoted in Roger D. Launius, “What are Turning Points in History, and What Were They for the Space Age?” Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, NASA SP-2007-4801, (NASA Office of External Relations Historical Division, 2007), 22.

[2] Carl L. Becker, “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly VIII, no. 3, (September, 1955): 327-340, accessed September 7, 2016, EBSCOHost.

[3] Aaron Sheehan-Dean, “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” Teaching History.org, accessed September 7, 2016, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gary W. Gallagher, “The war’s overlooked turning points,” Civil War Times 21, 2, Biography in Context, accessed September 6, 2016, EBSCOHost.

[6] Rau, 22.

[7] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), 410.

[8] Unknown Union soldier quoted in McPherson, 413.

[9] “Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg, Warrenton Junction, Virginia July 26, 1863,” Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.totalgettysburg.com/william-wheeler-letter.html.

[10] Rau, 22.

[11] Walt Whitman, Specimen Days and Collect, (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), 81.

[12] Mary Boykin Miller Chestnut, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 834.

 

Sources Referenced

Becker, Carl L. “What are Historical Facts?” The Western Political Quarterly VIII, no. 3, (September, 1955): 327-340, accessed September 7, 2016, EBSCOHost.

Chestnut, Mary Boykin Miller. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

Gallagher, Gary W. “The war’s overlooked turning points,” Civil War Times 21, 2, Biography in Context, accessed September 6, 2016, EBSCOHost.

Launius, Roger D. “What are Turning Points in History, and What Were They for the Space Age?” Societal Impact of Spaceflight, ed. Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, NASA SP-2007-4801, NASA Office of External Relations Historical Division, 2007.

“Letter from Lieut. William Wheeler, Thirteenth New York Battery to Family regarding the Battle of Gettysburg, Warrenton Junction, Virginia July 26, 1863,” Battle of Gettysburg and the Civil War, accessed September 8, 2016, http://www.totalgettysburg.com/william-wheeler-letter.html.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron. “Gettysburg: Turning Point or a Small Stepping-Stone to Victory?” Teaching History.org, accessed September 7, 2016, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/25224.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days and Collect. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883.

 

*Image taken from the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park Online Photo Archive. https://www.nps.gov/applications/hafe/detail.cfm?Image_No=hf-0002

The Last Witch of Parkland

On March 15, 1895, Michael Cleary burned his wife Bridget alive. He claimed his real wife had been taken by the fairies, and a changeling put in its place. After days of folk remedies (including dousing her with urine and force-feeding her herbal concoctions) and attempts to coax the fairy to leave through exposing it to the lit hearth (in other words, burning Bridget with the flames), Cleary finally poured paraffin oil on her smoldering clothing, setting her aflame. The media frenzied at Cleary’s trial, digging into the details of the witness statements and “evidence” of the supernatural at work in modern times.

There was more to this fairy story, however. “The overwhelming message of the fairy legends is that the unexpected may be guarded against by careful observance of society’s rules,” explained Angela Bourke in her 1999 book, The Burning of Bridget Cleary.[1] To Bourke, Bridget presented a more potent challenge to her local society than the supernatural ever could. A trained dressmaker who owned her own Singer sewing machine and also raised her own chickens, she was an educated tradeswoman who earned her own money. Her clientele brought her into contact with men and women in higher social classes, and through them, new ideas about what she wanted and expected from life. A woman who could support herself financially could not be as easily controlled by a husband or society in general. Adding the fact that she had not performed her wifely duty and borne a child to carry on the Cleary name, Bridget was a dangerous anomaly within the social norms of her community.

News coverage of battered spouses always seems to turn up warning signs far too late, and Cleary’s story is no different. A few months before she was killed, Bridget confided in her aunt Mary Kennedy about her troubles at home, saying “He’s making a fairy of me now, and an emergency…he thought to burn me three months ago.”[2] Cleary could have been speaking figuratively, saying her husband was disappointed in her and wished she would revert to the naïve, uneducated woman he married. It also could have been a literal cry for help, voicing her fears that her husband planned to harm her physically. History does not allow us to say with certainty which of these possibilities is true, but we do know Michael Cleary justified burning his wife to death because she was a “fairy.”

Cleary went to jail for fifteen years and his wife became the “last witch of Ireland,” a neat label that both sold papers and kept the public from developing too much empathy for the woman. Bridget Cleary was not a witch. At most she was a victim of the supernatural, or at least a victim of a society that used the supernatural as a cover for forcibly bringing women into line with accepted conventions.

One hundred years later, we pat ourselves on the back for disdaining the supernatural. We say we don’t burn witches, but that’s not exactly true. Modern society retains its own system of rules and punishments to regulate female behavior that is more often than not contradictory to those it holds for males. Our worst censure is reserved for women who defy convention: the ones who speak when they are supposed to be silent, rage when they are supposed to be resigned, act when they are supposed to be accepting. We don’t burn women at the stake; we roast them on social media. There is a reason the slang term for putting someone in their place using a well-timed insult is called a “burn.”

The survivors of the school shootings at Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, have come under fire for their response to the massacre. It defies the resigned “thoughts and prayers” that bolster the status quo. Channeling their grief and anger into action, the teenagers built one of the most powerful and compelling challenges to the American gun lobby in recent memory, if not ever. The sincerity of their message, spoken and shouted through tears, is difficult to deny, so detractors took aim at the messengers themselves. NRA leaders and other anti-gun control supporters insisted the teens are too young to be so poised and must therefore be talking heads for adult anti-gun/anti-Second Amendment groups already in place.

The worst insults seem to be reserved for Emma Gonzalez, a young woman whose words are as cutting as her hair is close-cropped. She called B.S., so Leslie Gibson, a Republican candidate for Maine’s House of Representatives referred to her as a “skinhead lesbian” on Twitter. Outrage over Gibson’s comments forced him to drop out of the race, but branding Miss Gonzalez in this manner shows modern America has its own answer to the Irish changeling fairy tale. Women must look and act a certain way to be accepted and must parrot the approved message if they are to be respected. Her haircut is not threatening in itself. Her sexual orientation, whatever it may be, has absolutely no bearing on her stance on gun control. Gibson may have attacked other classmates for their message, but he refused to hear Gonzalez because of her appearance and his interpretation of her sexuality. A non-white female with the courage to stand up to established adult politicians and the strength to stay on message as she attended a month of friends’ funerals and memorial services? Threatening does not begin to describe the woman. Neither does powerful. She again did the unthinkable at the March 24 March for our Lives rally in Washington, D.C. by staying silent. For six long minutes and twenty interminable seconds, Gonzalez stood on the stage, most of them saying nothing as tears dripped down her face. She weaponized silence, bringing the crowd to its feet and her detractors to their knees. The gun control crusader was without speech but had the last word.

In looking to history for lessons, we must remember we will sometimes see things we don’t want to see, including the fact that repeated “thoughts and prayers” are historically ineffective at keeping it from repeating itself. That prejudice, hate, and fear make words like “lesbian” (and “Pocahontas” for that matter) a slur and insult. That over a hundred years of experience, growth, and technology cannot keep us from behaving in the same ways as our “backward” ancestors did when confronted by change and challenge. We don’t burn young women as witches anymore, but we are very keen to crush the spirits of women and men who refuse to conform to societal expectations.

Describing the Cleary case in 1901, historian Michael J. McCarthy bemoaned the fact that the “events took place, not in Darkest Africa, but in Tipperary; not in the ninth or tenth, but at the close of the nineteenth century.”[3] Another century has passed. When will America stop burning its “witches,” or at least accept the fact that we aren’t as enlightened and modern as we would have others believe?

[1] Angela Bourke, The Burning of Bridget Cleary (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 34.

[2] Bridget Cleary quoted in Bourke, 75.

[3] “Bridget Cleary burned to death,” excerpted from Michael J. McCarthy, Five Years in Ireland, 1895-1900, posted in Library Ireland, accessed March 25, 2018, http://www.libraryireland.com/articles/Burning-Bridget-Cleary/.

KMS 2018