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Final Paper

 

 

 

 

“Women on the Home Front: Everyday Living in an Abnormal Time”

 

by

Samantha L. Howell

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oral History Seminar 667

Dr. Pamela Henson

Tuesdays 5:30-8:00 pm

28 November 2010

 

Preface

I examine the adaptations to gender roles that occurred when husbands left for WWII. In many cases, the story was not solely a Rosie the Riveter type, but a homemaker that adapted with the changes to her marriage, family, and life in general. In terms of approach, I consider my project’s use of oral histories to be subject-oriented, non-elite, and a family history. I interviewed three relatives: Edna Strickland, Thelma Sites, and Percy Sites. This is the beginning of a larger research project and continued family history.

For the purpose of this work, these sources will be integrated with secondary source materials in order to construct an assessment of service wives or women on the home front. I utilize a variety of secondary sources, found in the bibliography, some of which utilized forms of oral histories, letters, or diary entries. This larger examination creates a detailed context in which to place my family history. When oral history excerpts are used within this work, I take them from edited transcripts and cite the source by page for reference and full disclosure. Ellipses will be used when I take portions of a quote and do not include the entire original quote. These oral histories are not used to generalize an entire experience or aspect of women’s history but to enhance the existing sources and historiography, construct a family history, and lend representation to previously marginalized voices.

There is a wealth of scholarly works and literature on the World War II era, culture, and experiences.[1] Until recently, however, there was little attention devoted to collecting experiences and accounts from the women of WWII. Rosie the Riveters and women who entered the work force were the first stories to emerge and became the prominent “poster child” for women — so much so that this became the overwhelming narrative for American women. As historian D’Ann Campbell stresses however, it is important to assess the lives of ordinary people and give voice to the underrepresented stories of women, specifically housewives of WWII.[2]

Women on the home front were often times wives and mothers, working full time jobs from within the home. They performed household duties, childrearing, and filled the absence of husbands through letter writing, leisure activities, and patriotic duties. While all this sounds ordinary, and is deemed as such by many of those women who lived during these trying times, it was a time consuming and emotionally draining job. Ultimately, women on the home front were living during abnormal times and circumstances. Their experiences, long overlooked, must be acknowledged, recorded, and appreciated in our hearts and our history.

During the War

Men enlisted or were drafted into military service in large volumes once America entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. These men were leaving their roles, not only in the workforce, but in their family lives. Their absence and its effect on their wives and families did not go unnoticed and was an influential factor to those who remained at home throughout the course of the war. Additionally, drafts later grew to include fathers, thus creating a lasting impact on their children and the family dynamics. As William Tuttle states in his work Daddy’s Gone to War, “When family life changes, inevitably, so does the child’s.”[3] Women and mothers on the home front then had to attend to the responsibilities incurred by these changes. Elwood Strickland left for war on Valentine’s Day and his wife, Edna, can still feel the pain of that day as she recalls, “it was very sad to see him go.” This also affected her young daughter, Karen, who was just three years old at the time of his departure. Edna continues, “she (Karen) cried for him for a long time.”[4]

Prior to the war, Americans placed great importance on the life of the family. Families clung to this value and adapted family life throughout the war.[5] Edna and Thelma came from a large family and started their own families at young ages. These two women lived with or nearby family members leading up to and during the war. In fact, it was not uncommon for women to move in with other service wives or female neighbors in order to ease the duties of the household, childrearing, and emotional or financial strains.  Edna Strickland lived with her older sister, Vera, while her husband was away. Edna cared for her daughter Karen, and Vera’s two children. Edna explains:

“So she (Vera) said, ‘Come down and live with me and make it easier for both of us’…but it didn’t go. It was, when you put two sets of kids together, everything happened is blamed on the opposite. I’m not saying I was any different from her but I mean, that’s the way it was and then I went up to Thelma…I was only up there for about a month when Elwood come back.”[6]

The duties of housewives on the home front may sound nominally familiar to chores today, though one must remember that such tasks as “cooking”, “washing dishes”, or “doing laundry” were not performed using modern day appliances. Instead, household duties were time consuming and less convenient. Campbell summarizes it best, stating, “Housewives’ duties were never easy, but were made more challenging during the war.”[7] The tedious household chores were not the only inconveniences facing the daily lives of service wives and mothers. The need to ration and cope with shortages on goods and supplies placed a strain on family life and daily planning.

Everyday actions, such as buying groceries, planning meals, and obtaining necessities were complicated by the shortages of war. Edna Strickland remembers rationing and shortages:

“Well…you had to live on stamps. You had to have stamps to buy butter, you had to have stamps to buy sugar, you had to have stamps to buy coffee…You only got a book of stamps a month and when they were all you did without.”[8]

Her sister, Thelma, reminisces as well:

“I didn’t drive at that time and I had no car. They only way I got for groceries was my one sister…and about every two weeks, she would take me along for groceries…gas was rationed then, that’s why we went every two weeks instead of every week…There was a little store right down from me and, but all they sold was bread, milk, and canned stuff, nothing fresh.”[9]

Rationing was stressed as a necessary action for the country and for the well being of troops abroad. Participation in these activities was closely tied to a woman’s patriotism and home front service because “women were repeatedly reminded that the burden of rationing was theirs.”[10]

War posters also explained that it was a woman’s patriotic duty as wives and citizens to write letters to their men serving on the warfront. This correspondence created a connection to home while the men were away and was deemed a “necessary morale booster.”[11] Therefore, mail which was received at home and abroad was a source of comfort and anxiety. For Edna Strickland, she waited anxiously for mail and then she received scary news. “Then when my telegram came that Elwood was wounded, boy, that was a shock. You didn’t know how bad when they came with a telegram, how bad it was going to be.”[12] Moreover, it cannot be underestimated how important these connections were to men. Percy Sites, Thelma’s husband, sent as many letters as he received during the course of the war and used his letters to send his love and check on his son.[13]

Other times, mail was lost and created miscommunications between husband and wife, only intensifying the stress of the time. Edna recalls:

“I wrote him (Elwood) a letter every single day and he’d keep writing back and saying, ‘I didn’t get any letters, I didn’t get any letters, are you alright?’ When he came home from the army there was a box of letters came back to me. I had written him every day but he didn’t get any. He was in rehab, you see, he was wounded and was in rehab and he was in the back of the line and they kept moving him and the letters never caught up to him…”[14]

Not only was this difficult for Edna who was sending letters but could not effectively communicate to her husband, but it also negatively impacted Elwood while he was overseas. He assumed that she was not sending any letters and was afraid that she had moved on or no longer loved him.

Leisure activities, though often few and far between, were also very important to women on the home front and a subject of examination for historians. Types of activities and range of travel differed amongst women depending on their available opportunities and location. Still, women did have these moments, either independently or with their children, as a way to maintain normalcy, to bond, or to relieve anxiety.  In the small town of Rudytown, there were limited opportunities for leisure activities. However, Edna recalls that there were open air movies and carnivals nearby. Additionally, Thelma found leisure in spending time with her son, Rudy, and going for walks to her brother’s house.[15]

As women on the home front coped with the strains and effects of war, many became independent and more socially active, some in more drastic ways than others. There was a general concern in America regarding women and their behavior while husbands or male counterparts were absent.[16] Edna expressed that some women were unfaithful to their husbands while they were in the military. When asked if she noticed women acting differently during the war, she responded, “Well some of ‘em… didn’t behave there selves (chuckles)… go out with other men, you know.”[17]

Close relationships with family and other women or neighbors eased the various strains and created a support system for women on the home front. The emotional concerns brought on by war resonated with Edna and Thelma, as well as many service wives and families. According to Campbell, “most wives worried about the safety of their husbands.”[18] Edna affirms this, stating, “I worried all the time about him getting killed.”[19] Additionally, the financial strains of the Great Depression did not end simultaneously with the beginning of WWII and instead, continued to remain prevalent among Americans on the home front. Edna and Thelma, however, did not recall substantial financial worries.[20]  Regardless, their relationships and support systems were invaluable when coping with the various strains of war.

Finally, Edna and Thelma’s experiences vary from other home front women in that they both lived in an extremely rural and small town. Therefore, their experiences and observations regarding their community are unique when compared to the majority of American communities. While their community experiences may not be representative of the majority, they do provide important assessment and nuance to social effects of war. Anderson states that “the wartime boom transformed communities almost overnight, creating a situation conducive to rapid and significant changes.”[21] In contrast, Edna and Thelma’s observations suggest that Rudytown was not subject to significant changes common to communities in WWII. Edna describes Rudytown:

“We lived in a little town that had a…one church, funeral parlor, and  store’s about all was in the town (chuckles)…I really don’t know what effects there’d be, in the little town I was, there wasn’t many people went (to war) from there… It was mostly older people.”[22]

The population was small and mostly elderly so that not many people were drafted or enlisted to the warfront and there were no volunteer opportunities for women at home like there was in larger towns and cities.

After the War

“When I come back home everything was short. And it took a while to catch up…we were married and we were just getting a start in life and all at once that’s all taken from you and then you come home you got to start all again. And what little bit you did build up when you were home, you didn’t have any of that when you come back.”[23]

The adaptations made when the men departed for war were faced a second time upon their return home. The emotional stresses, changes in familial dynamics, and absence of the men took a toll on marriages and families as a whole. Children also had to reunite with fathers they barely knew and forge a new relationship. Edna recalls her daughter Karen’s reaction to “Daddy’s” return home:

“I showed her pictures. When he come home from war, I met him down at the train station and she kept looking at him and she said, ‘Is this my real dad?’ (chuckles) ‘Or is this another daddy?’ She didn’t know. She was used to looking at the pictures!”[24]

 

This reaction was not abnormal among children who were young when their father’s left for war.  In fact, some were more emotionally confusing. Another woman who was a child during the war reflected on the reunion with her father in Tuttle’s work. She explained, “The man I could not remember but who had been referred to as ‘Dad’ was coming home and I, displaced from my mother’s bedroom by this stranger, hid in a closet.”[25]  Despite the initial strangeness to a father’s return, many were able to easy back into family life, though not immediately. Percy Sites worked into a relationship with his son Rudy when he returned home and enjoyed his time with the kids. “…When the kids were little, I used to have them with me all the time…Then they got some friends their own age and everything and got a little older.”[26]

            Service wives had anticipated their husbands’ safe return from the moment of his departure. There were significant issues which needed to be addressed for those who were lucky to have their husbands return from war. After years of absence, married couples had to compensate for lost time and reinstate family dynamics to include a physically present husband and father. Parker’s work incorporates oral histories from service wives, including many accounts of women and their ease or difficulty of filling in the gaps of time in their marriage.[27] Edna noted that she and her husband “had a lot to talk about, a lot to do.” There was so much to say that she does not know if they were ever able to catch up after the war.[28]

The emotional tolls that servicemen had experienced were carried with them upon returning home. Memories and trauma were not only internalized but also added to the responsibilities of their wives. Often times, men who returned were physically disfigured and internally suffering from the emotional experiences of war. It was not until the 1980s when Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was acknowledged and diagnosed as a real problem for war veterans.[29] Therefore, immediately following the war there was limited understanding of the internal suffering and many men did not want to talk about their experiences. Even today, veterans of WWII suffer from recurring emotional flashbacks or trauma. Percy describes his experiences in that regard:

“I used to- your nerves were shot and all that- and I used to get awake at night and have to change my underclothing, they were soaking wet… but time erases a lot of things, you  know… I dream about it quite a bit. If there’s something on television or something… about the war, why, sometimes I’ll watch a little bit of it and if it gets too bad, then I switch to something else.”[30]

Regardless, when husbands returned, the government and military encouraged wives to be understanding in their husbands transition home. Weatherford explains that servicemen would “need aid and understanding in convalescence, especially a watchful wife.”[31]

            The newly found independence of some house wives affected and challenged the roles of the family and their place within the marriage as well. While Edna does not consider herself to challenge the traditional roles of the time, she does acknowledge the independence she gained during Elwood’s absence. When he returned, “It was different because I wasn’t used to him being around for so long, you know (chuckles) and then he, I guess he got in my way! I was used to being my own boss and it made a difference!”[32]

Finally, many servicemen who received GI bills could assess their housing situation following the war and potentially become home owners. The Great Depression had limited migration within the United States and housing issues continued after WWII on a national level.[33]  Although many homes and their conveniences improved, such as indoor plumbing and water, there were still many houses that were “fixer-uppers”. Edna recalls the less than ideal circumstances in housing following the war:

“Oh it was terrible, I hated it. It was awful. It was so run-down when we moved in but we couldn’t find anything, you know. Houses were scarce at the time. The back porch was falling down and we had an outside toilet.”[34]

Reflections

            As the historiography for WWII broadens to include previously marginalized voices, the experiences of home front women who were not the popular “Rosies” but everyday housewives must be recorded as well. Women on the home front were working hard within the homes to maintain a family, household, and their normalcy throughout the war. They attempted to carry on their normal lives and everyday tasks in abnormal circumstances while husbands and fathers were absent. These stories of everyday women on the home front are beginning to surface through oral histories, though long overdue. While the lapse in time allows for reflections to change in the minds of the narrators, it is still important to collect these remembrances before they are permanently lost.

Many times, historians and authors who use oral histories struggle to obtain accounts because many women assert that they did nothing of importance. Why home front women feel this way depends on the individual and is up for speculation. Emily Yellin, author of Our Mother’s War, offers an interesting perspective however, which is apt for assessing service wives like Edna and Thelma. Service wives’ “stories were told through a filter of comparison, either direct or implied, to the men’s experience and their war.”[35] Perhaps this is why, when asked about her sacrifices, Edna was baffled. “I don’t know what for sacrifice I made.”[36] Edna and Thelma were proud of their husbands’ service during the war and readily discussed their achievements. 

            Historians and Americans who look back on the time with nostalgia and admiration often describe the 1940s as a time of change. This was certainly true from an outsider’s point of view but on an individual and personal level, those who experienced it first-hand may not deem it as full of changes. These reflections may be a result of time as narrators become more removed from the initial experiences and emotional connections. Ultimately, one must not underestimate the human tendency and nature to adapt to situations. When Thelma was asked how she coped during the war, she replied, “Well, I guess at that time when you were young you learned to do that kind of stuff. I didn’t have any trouble.”[37]

            Yet, Edna does say that war and her experiences helped her achieve independence. For Edna, the concept of independence is not synonymous with the actions of a “free girl” or feminist. When asked about the state of the American family, Edna replied, “Well, there isn’t much of a family anymore…they (mothers) all work and the kids raise their selves.”[38] In their conclusions, Edna and Thelma still stressed the importance of traditional roles for women as wives and mothers in the family. They also shared their advice for me as a woman, stressing the importance of education, honesty, faithfulness, and marriage to a good man.

Reflection on Oral History Process

These interviewees are in their nineties and had never been interviewed formally or questioned in detail about this time period. Years have passed since the initial time and events so that they were a little insecure with their memories and chronology which possibly contributed to their short answers. I tried to pick up on their clues as to when they were getting tired or uncomfortable but I felt like, for the most part, I could ask my questions. These women, like many of WWII, did not acknowledge their sacrifices or their actions as anything noteworthy.

One of the lessons I learned from these two interviews was that, to these women, being strong and independent was not the same as breaking gender roles as I had assumed. I had perceived the interviewees differently than how they perceived themselves. The realization of my misconceptions, although startling at first, ultimately allowed me to understand them more as women and as family members. This project and oral history collection allows me and future generations to understand them in the way they want to be understood. I was able to integrate their stories in the larger historiography and context so that it merges their voices with a larger narrative.

Additionally, I underestimated the nature of adaptation. As an outsider who did not experience WWII and life on the home front, I see their experiences as life changing and overwhelming. Although they acknowledged some changes and struggles, they both noted that they just had to get through it. It was a part of their life and they lived through it because they had to and it was the circumstances of the time. Also, I did not take into account until after the interview that their location in a small rural town limited the changes they witnessed in their community. In many ways their experiences are representative of service wives who lived on the home front during the war. Yet, they still have unique characteristics marked by their community, individuality, and personal reflections.

This oral history process helped me to learn from mistakes and analyze my work in terms of methodology. I look forward to interviewing my relatives again in order to ask the necessary follow-up questions but I also anticipate interviewing others outside of my family in order to experience different dynamics in the process. While I had the benefits of an insider, I also experienced its drawbacks with short answers regarding personal relationships.  I would like to see how dynamics change between interviewees and challenge my abilities at adaptation as an interviewer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Secondary Source Materials:

Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women during World War II. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Campbell, D’Ann. Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Hartmann, Susan M. The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Hoopes, Roy. Americans Remember the Home Front: An Oral Narrative of World War II Years in American. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2002.

Parker, Pauline E. Women of the Home Front: World War II Recollections of 55 Americans. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc., 2002.

Tuttle, William M. Jr. Daddy’s Gone to War: Second World War in the Lives of American Children. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Weatherford, Doris. History of Women in America: American Women and World War II. New York: Facts on File Inc., 1990.

Yellin, Emily. Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and the Front during World War II. New York: Free Press, 2004.

Best Practices Literature:

Baum, Willa. Transcribing and Editing Oral History. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1991.

Charleton, Thomas L., Lois E. Myers, and Rebecca Sharpless, eds.  History of Oral History:  Foundations and Methods.  New York:  AltaMira Press, 2007.

Neuenschwander, John. A Guide to Oral History and the Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Ritchie, Donald. Doing Oral History. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Primary Source Interviews:

Sites, Percy. Interview by Samantha Howell. Digital Wav file recording. Dillsburg, PA., 3 October 2010.

Sites, Thelma. Interview by Samantha Howell. Digital Wav file recording. Dillsburg, PA., 3 October 2010.

Strickland, Edna. Interview by Samantha Howell. Digital Wav file recording. Newport, PA., 2 October 2010.


[1] See bibliography for extensive list of examples. Some include: D’Ann Campbell, Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984); Susan M. Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982); and Emily Yellin, Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and the Front during World War II (New York: Free Press, 2004).

[2] D’Ann Campbell, Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 165.

[3] William M. Tuttle Jr., Daddy’s Gone to War: Second World War in the Lives of American Children, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 33.

[4] Edna Strickland, Interview by Samantha Howell. Digital Wav file recording. (Newport, PA., 2 October 2010), 12& 21.

[5] Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women during World War II, (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1981), 76.

[6] Edna Strickland, 61.

[7] D’Ann Campbell, 165.

[8] Edna Strickland, 26.

[9] Thelma Sites, Interview by Samantha Howell. Digital Wav file recording. (Dillsburg, PA., 3 October 2010), 15.

[10] Doris Weatherford, History of Women in America: American Women and World War II, (New York: Facts on File Inc., 1990), 216.

[11] Ibid., 276.

[12] Edna Strickland, 19.

[13] Percy Sites, Interview by Samantha Howell. Digital Wav file recording. (Dillsburg, PA., 3 October 2010), 13.

[14] Edna Strickland, 12.

[15] Thelma Sites, 18.

[16] Doris Weatherford, 111.

[17] Edna Strickland, 24.

[18] D’Ann Campbell, 201.

[19] Edna Strickland, 20

[20] Ibid., 21.

[21] Karen Anderson, 19.

[22] Edna 20 and 25.

[23] Percy Sites, 29-30.

[24] Edna Strickland, 21.

[25] William M. Tuttle Jr., 220.

[26] Percy Sites, 21.

[27] Pauline E. Parker, Women of the Home Front: World War II Recollections of 55 Americans, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company Inc., 2002), 119.

[28] Edna Strickland, 36.

[29] William M. Tuttle Jr., 217.

[30] Percy Sites, 23-24.

[31] Doris Weatherford, 289.

[32] Edna Strickland, 40.

[33] Susan M. Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982), 166-167.

[34] Edna Strickland, 39.

[35] Emily Yellin, Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and the Front during World War II, (New York: Free Press, 2004), 378.

[36] Edna Strickland, 46.

[37] Thelma Sites,16

[38] Edna Strickland, 47.