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 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

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 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

Taking it to the Streets: International Women’s Day, March 8, 1917

One hundred one years ago today, thousands of Russian women took to the streets to protest high prices and food scarcity. “Down with high prices” and “down with hunger,” they shouted. Their voices did not go unheard. Thousands joined them the next day as a labor strike broke out. On March 9 (February 25 according to the Russian calendar), approximately 200,000 workers filled Petrograd. Their new battle cry? Down with the tsar.

In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, one character describes how he went bankrupt as happening “gradually and suddenly.”[1] “Gradually and suddenly” is also an extremely apt way to characterize the 1917 February Revolution in Russia. The revolutionary spark kindled by the massacre of Father Gapon and his followers in 1905 was temporarily dimmed by Nicholas II’s creation of the Duma and other assorted attempts at reforms. The next twelve years saw steady economic decline, rampant inflation, military setbacks and defeats in World War I, and a continued increase in the people’s distrust and disfavor with their autocratic government. All of these factors contributed to the February Revolution, but what caused it to occur at that specific time? Why not in January, or the previous December? The revolution needed a flashpoint, and that came in the form of a loaf of bread. The person who wants to identify the roots of the February 1917 Revolution need look no farther than what was on (and more importantly, what was not on) Russian dinner tables. More than allegiance to any revolutionary dogma or nationalist feeling, Russians of every class and creed shared the experience of persistent food insecurity. Food scarcity does not link to the entire revolutionary movement in a straight line, but it is both a common theme and symbol of the problems within the Russian government, military, and people themselves.

“It all began with bread,” wrote historian Orlando Figes in his social history of the Revolution.[2] As the country mobilized for war, the majority of the nation’s food production was earmarked for sustaining the millions of men (and women) serving at the front (and rear).[3] Even this was not enough, as soldiers complained of the lack of provisions, arms, and other necessities. “In Ivov, before the eyes of 28 thousand soldiers, five people were flogged for leaving their courtyard without permission to buy white bread,” wrote soldier A. Novokov.[4]

Food insecurity was even worse on the home front. As peasant farmers realized they could not buy enough food to support their families, they turned to farming subsistence crops like potatoes and oats instead of traditional grains. In the cities, workers had money to buy food, but near constant food shortages meant there was no food to buy. “We will soon have a famine,” wrote Maxim Gorky to his wife, Ekaterina. “I advise you to buy ten pounds of food and hide it.”[5] Most would not be able to make such preparations. “They say: work calmly, but we are hungry and we cannot work,” wrote a group of female workers in June 1915. “They say there is no bread. Where is it then? Or is it only for the Germans that the Russian land produces?”[6]

Everyone seemed to recognize Russia’s situation was dire except the tsar. While his country starved, the “little father” of Russia dined in style. Describing a typical meal at Tsar Nicholas II’s table, Alexander Mosolov writes of “soup…followed by fish, a (game or chicken) casserole, vegetables, sweets, (and) fruit.”[7] The ruling family washed down this abundance of food with “madeira, white and red wines for breakfast… and different wines served at lunch, as is the custom everywhere else in the civilised (sic) world.”[8] There is no more powerful demonstration of the tsar’s disengagement from the people he ruled than the royal family enjoying the finest Bordeaux while his people could barely scrape enough food together to keep themselves alive. Nero is said to have fiddled while Rome burned, but the Romanovs did feast while the Russian people starved.

The people were hungry, the army was in disarray, and the government seemed out-of-touch at best, but the situation was still not quite ripe for revolution. The people needed a common cause they could rally behind. This cause crystallized in the bread lines of Petrograd. Figes described the Petrograd bread lines as almost “a sort of political forum or club, where rumours, information, and views were exchanged.”[9] As they realized common experiences and concerns, the people began to organize. Put quite simply by Figes, “(t)he February Revolution was born in the bread queue.”[10] Organized civil disobedience took a more violent turn as bread shortages led to bread riots. Strikes and walkouts in factories increased the number of people demonstrating in the streets, making it ever more difficult for the police to regain control. The tsarist government fell, the Romanov Dynasty ended, and a Provisional Government made up of leaders of the Duma was left to pick up the pieces. It should be no mystery why the Bolsheviks captured the imagination of the people. Their promises of peace, land, and bread neatly summed up the needs of every Russian soldier, farmer, and worker, man or woman, child or adult.

When compared to other causes of the Revolution—World War I, failed reforms, tsarist incompetence—bread seems insignificant. Lack of bread, however, is extremely significant. The Russian government could not meet the needs of its people. Hundreds of thousands died at the front lines and at home while the Duma struggled against a tsar who had no understanding of his country’s issues or impending demise. The 1917 February Revolution in Russia continued a legacy of protest that included the 1789 women’s bread riots in revolutionary France and the bread riots in Richmond, Virginia (then capital of the Confederacy) in 1863. Food insecurity inspired women to speak, and gave them a message to which their societies listened.

One hundred one years later, women still wait in bread lines, walk miles for clean water for their families, and struggle to care for their families. Equal pay and equal rights continue to escape even the most modern, “civilized” nations. It is easier to create hashtags and slogans than real change. On this International Women’s Day, we recognize the women who spoke up and walked out. We salute the women who continue to refuse to let the status quo determine their present and stifle their future.

 

[1] Ernest Hemingway (1926) The Sun Also Rises (New York: Scribner, 2006 ed.), Book 2, chapt. 13.

[2] Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924. (New York: Penguin Books, 2006), 298.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “A. Novikov to A. I. Ivanova, Moscow, “Excerpts from Soldiers’ Letters, Intercepted by Censors, 1915-1917,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914:1922: A Documentary History, ed. Jonathan Daly, Leonid Trofinov, accessed June 6, 2016, http://www.snhu-media.snhu.edu/files/course-repository/graduate/his/his630, 12.

[5] Maxim Gorky quoted in Figes, 300.

[6] “Proclamation of Kostroma women workers to soldiers, June 1915,” in Russia in War and Revolution, 1914-1922: A Documentary History, 11.

[7] Alexander Mosolov, “At the Emperor’s Court, Book IV” in At the Court of the Last Tsar, accessed June 14, 2016, http://www.alexanderpalace.org/mossolov.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Figes, 300.

[10] Ibid.

And the Oscar Goes to: Hattie McDaniel and the Original #OscarsSoWhite

On February 29, 1940, African-American actress, singer, and entertainer Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her portrayal as Mammy in Gone With The Wind. Though 1939 also saw the premieres of movies like The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, GWTW earned thirteen nominations and eight awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress accolade. Given the racism and discrimination rampant in the United States in the 1940s, the decision to award the Supporting Actress to an African-American woman seemed to be a tremendous step forward.

It was.

It also wasn’t.

Born in 1893, Hattie McDaniel began performing when she was in high school as part of a troupe called The Mighty Minstrels. By the time she was in her 20s, she was performing on the radio, the first African-American woman to do so. The performing life did not pay well, and McDaniel often worked as domestic help to make ends meet. After moving to Los Angeles, she was cast as an extra in a Hollywood musical. After earning her Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card, McDaniel went on to small roles in I’m No Angel, The Little Colonel, Judge Priest, and Show Boat. She worked with and became friends with many of the major stars of the day, including Shirley Temple, Henry Fonda, Clark Gable, and Olivia de Havilland. Her relationships with the latter two helped her win the role of Mammy in Gone With The Wind.

McDaniel’s acting ability was never in doubt. Mammy was the soul of Margaret Mitchell’s novel and of the film adaptation. Reception to the film (and its actors) demonstrates the black soul of American racism, however. None of the African-American actors were able to attend the film’s opening night at Atlanta’s Loew’s Grand Theater. Jim Crow also showed up at the Oscar ceremony the following year. GWTW director David O. Selznick had to petition for McDaniel to be able to attend the ceremony at the Ambassador Hotel. She and her date ended up sitting at a table at the back of the room separate from her GWTW costars. It was easier to award McDaniel one of the top acting awards in the nation than to find a place for her in American society as an African American woman. She could be a star, but not an equal.

McDaniel also faced censure from the African-American community, who saw GWTW and the character of Mammy as romanticizing the Old South and slavery. They criticized her for taking roles as slaves and servants, saying she was preserving the stereotypes that fueled discrimination against black Americans. McDaniel disagreed, arguing African-American women did not have the luxury of choosing their roles if they wanted to continue to work (and to eat). “The only choice permitted us is either to be servants for $7 a week or to portray them for $700 a week,” she said.[1] McDaniel believed “a woman’s gifts will make room for her,” but we cannot forget for a moment that a woman is rarely in control of the room’s location or its conditions.[2]

Almost eighty years later, the Academy Awards, and the United States, struggles with diversity. The 2015 Awards earned the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Caucasian actors for all twenty major acting awards, the first occurrence since 1998. American society is diverse, but depicting and honoring that diversity continues to be difficult. It is hard to believe we can still celebrate the “first black,” “first Asian,” “first Hispanic,” “first LGBTQ,” “first woman” (the list goes on and on) anything in the year 2018, but that is our reality and our society.

Tonight’s 90th Academy Awards is not without its own firsts: the first female cinematography nominee (Rachel Morrison for Mudbound); nominations for African-American director/comedian/actor Jordan Peele (Get Out) and for female director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); and of course, the first Oscars since Harvey Weinstein was dethroned by industry leaders finally taking the sexual assault and abuse allegations against him seriously. 2018 seems to be the year where Hollywood is at least ready to listen to disenfranchised voices, but that does not mean the path ahead is certain. Some have criticized the film Call Me By Your Name, the story of a young man’s summer affair with his father’s research assistant, as promoting sexual promiscuity and underage sexual relations. This is especially interesting during a cinematic season that also saw the opening of Fifty Shades Darker, the second film in a trilogy that regularly substitutes softcore pornography for plot and character development. Others criticize Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water for not going far enough in its development of its disabled characters, namely the protagonist, Elisa.[3] The Oscars, like society itself, is perpetually caught in a game of one step forward, one step back, not far enough—wait, too far. It is only by stretching boundaries that we will ever arrive at a new, more equitable normal.

McDaniel said “we respect sincerity in our friends and acquaintances, but Hollywood is willing to pay for it.”[4] Perhaps the best way forward is to keep reminding Hollywood, and other sources of American power, that it will only get what it pays for. We must also remember that we, the consumers, get what we pay for. Hollywood films what sells. If we continue to demand film art that is inclusive and also put our money where we say our priorities lie, #OscarsSoWhite can become part of history, not a recurring pattern. Race and gender shape art, but do not and cannot determine its worth. Perhaps we must also keep reminding them we have the receipts.

kms

[1] https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/9148-hattie-mcdaniel.

[2] Ibid.

[3] See “What ‘The Shape of Water’ Gets Wrong About Disability,” at http://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6/episode-379-populism-in-italy-s-elections-greenland-s-ice-melt-the-shape-of-water-ode-to-cds-and-more-1.4555633/what-the-shape-of-water-gets-wrong-about-disability-1.4555657.

[4] https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/9148-hattie-mcdaniel.

F-Bomb Field Trip: U.S. Army Women’s Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia

Two statues guard the entrance of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia: Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess responsible for wisdom and war, and a female American soldier, the personification of those attributes. The USAWM was originally part of Fort McClellan, Alabama, but moved to Virginia after the base closed in 1999. It opened at Fort Lee in 2001, but it was only five years ago that the museum became the first American military installation to display a statue of a female soldier. This timeline parallels women’s fight to both participate in the U.S. military and be recognized for their participation. The museum does a very good job at establishing the fact that women have always been involved in American wars; it was official recognition of their contributions that trailed behind.

The museum begins and ends with a large tree adorned with replicas of dog tags left behind by fallen female soldiers. One electronic exhibit allows the visitor to select the names of individual soldiers and pull up their pictures and a short biography and service record. Sacrifice is key to the USAWM: from the “unofficial” soldiers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars to the WACs of WWII and combat soldiers of Desert Storm and following, female sacrifice was essential to American military success.

As described on its website, the USAWM is a “repository of artifacts and archives,” but also “an educational institution.” The curators have done a fantastic job integrating elements that will keep younger visitors interested and entertained. A theater in a small alcove explains the role of Walt Disney animation in the war effort and shows several WWII-era Donald Duck cartoons produced during the time. There is also an area that allows children to try on the various caps/head gear, uniform pieces, and arms mentioned and depicted in the exhibits. Kids can also take home free coloring pages as a souvenir.

The USWM is also an important resource for historians and researchers. Appointments to view the archives or explore their service member oral histories can be made on the museum website. The archive holds over 1.5 million documents, including books, photographs, scrapbooks, correspondence, and other formats. The museum also allows visitors to take home copies of the U.S. Army Center for Military History’s books on the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) by historians Bettie J. Morden and Mattie E. Treadwell. As military history has long been the domain of men, finding sources about military women written by military women is refreshing to say the least. Morden’s and Treadwell’s works would be extremely useful to students and researchers interested in investigating female participation in the army from 1942 to 1978. Treadwell’s Special Studies text provides additional information on mid-century American interpretations of gender and war and reflects on how these interpretations shaped what military women were and were not allowed to do during wartime.

The U.S. Army Women’s Museum is easy to overlook, but well worth a visit. At the time of our visit (March 1, 2018), several exhibits were under construction, including redesign of a gallery and an expansion of one area. I’m definitely planning a return visit to see the new pieces and check out the U.S. Army Quartermaster Museum next door.

kms

The United States Army Women’s Museum / 2100 Avenue A / Fort Lee, Virginia / www.awm.lee.army.mil / 804-734-4327 / Tues. through Sat., 1000-1700