Emily Yellin. Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II. New York: Free Press, 2004. xiv + 447 pp. $26.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7432-4514-2.
Reviewed by Kara Dixon Vuic (Department of History, Indiana University)
Published on H-War (February, 2005)
Emily Yellin's Our Mothers' War provides a broad overview of the experiences of American women during World War II. She began this work after discovering in an attic her mother's letters, photographs, and notes from her time as a Red Cross volunteer in the Pacific. This discovery led Yellin to seek out the experiences of other women like her mother whose stories, Yellin believed, were still in boxes in their own attics. Her study looks at the experiences of women commonly associated with the war, such as women in the Women's Army Corps and women who worked in defense production factories, as well as women whose experiences during the war are less well known, such as female journalists and Jewish women in the military. Although Yellin offers little analysis of the experiences she documents, it does succeed in bringing the voices of these women to the forefront of her work.
Yellin begins by looking at women who sent their husbands or sweethearts to war and then found themselves in the new position of providing for their children on their own, all the while trying to help the war effort through rationing, Victory Gardens, and community programs. The author also looks at families who lost husbands and fathers to the war, an experience illustrated by the Sullivan family who lost five sons. Yellin argues that these women expanded the conception of a homemaker to include numerous ways that women could contribute to American society.
Yellin then looks at the experiences of the more than six million women in the workforce during the war. These women worked in wartime industrial production plants building ships and airplanes, they worked in sales and clerical positions, and they worked in hazardous munitions plants. She points out that the addition of white, middle-class, married women to the workforce required a government-sponsored public relations campaign that assured women would remain feminine and work only for the duration of the war. She also points out the failure of government and industry to provide adequate child care facilities and to provide equal pay for women workers, but implies that these issues, raised during the war, persisted in the years after it.
Two chapters illustrate the various ways women participated in the military, both on the homefront and in the overseas theaters. Yellin looks at the congressional struggle to create the women's corps and the limitations placed on their service. Even when the Women's Army Corps (WAC) became a part of the Army and not merely an auxiliary, for example, the women still did not receive equal rank, pay, or benefits. Women in the military also faced rumors about their character that included charges of lesbianism and sexual promiscuity. Despite the impediments to their service, Yellin shows that women in the military filled a number of roles, including weather observers and forecasters, radio operators, control tower operators, pilot instructors, aerial photograph analysts, cryptologists, mechanics, scientists in the Manhattan Project, clerical workers, and switchboard operators. Military nurses served both at home and overseas, while the Cadet Nurse Corps provided tuition to student nurses who would serve for the war's duration as civilian or military nurses upon graduation. Women volunteers also served on the homefront and overseas through organizations like the Red Cross, the United Service Organization (USO), the Office of Civilian Defense, the American Women's Voluntary Services, and the Women's Land Army.
Also considered are women not typically included in studies of this kind, including women who worked as entertainers for troops stationed in the United States, filled men's positions as disc jockeys, sold war bonds to raise money for relief efforts, worked in the Office of War Information to develop propaganda, or worked in the Office of Strategic Services as spies or as file clerks. Women who filled clerical positions in government agencies, covered the war as journalists, and entertained America in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League are also included. Yellin also looks at the Japanese-American women interned in camps throughout the war, and the ways that wives of scientists in the Los Alamos community coped with their wartime environment. Yellin also discusses female prostitutes in Honolulu and the ways the military regulated their work, as well as women who were blamed for spreading venereal disease among troops. In addition, she looks at women who opposed the war, such as the fascist groups that opposed the Allies.
Yellin's work also looks at the ways that images of women were used during the war, as in pinup photographs collected by male soldiers, paintings of women on the noses of airplanes, advertisements produced by the Office of War Information, and the creation of the Wonder Woman comic character. Yellin's inclusion of these images of women does much to show the various ways that conceptions of gender roles influenced the ways women were utilized during the war, but Yellin stops short of exploring these gendered ideals. Much more could be said about what these images suggest about American society, the military, and war in general.
The particular experiences of African-American women during the war were shaped by racial prejudice; as Yellin points out, American society was willing to make many sacrifices for the war effort, but race was not something many were willing to overlook. Thus, African-American women were often hired last for industrial jobs that paid more than the domestic and agricultural jobs many held before the war, and even when hired, these women received the least desirable and often the most dangerous positions. In response to segregation in volunteer groups and in the military, African-American women formed the Women's Army for National Defense to sell war bonds, provide daycare, and run civil defense programs, and organized separate USO clubs for segregated troops. In the military, African-American women could join the WAC, but only up to a specified quota; African-American women were prohibited from joining the Marines or the Women Airforce Service Pilots. But while Yellin points out the facts of the discrimination African-American women faced, she fails to fully explore the ties between race, gender, and citizenship during the war.
Throughout the work, Yellin suggests that World War II was an "inadvertent revolution" for women, pointing out that while the war's end brought challenges to many of the professional gains made by women, the psychological impact of the women's experiences had far more lasting effects (p. xiv). The self-confidence that many women gained by working and earning their own paychecks was something that the loss of a factory job could not undo. It was these more personal and less dramatic changes that Yellin argues survived the war and impacted her mother's generation of women.
The drawback of Our Mothers' War is that it adds very little to the historiography of women in World War II or U.S. women's history. Yellin suggests that the war was a watershed time for women, as have many other historians, but fails to make a new argument about the women, their roles in the war, or the impact of their service. What she does do, however, is an excellent job of quoting women who participated in the war in various ways and of allowing them to speak for themselves and in their own voices. These voices provide much insight into their ideas about women's roles during the war, as well as how those ideas may have changed because of the war. In that way, the book is more than just a history of women in World War II; it is also a history of women in the mid-twentieth century.
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Kara Dixon Vuic. Review of Yellin, Emily, Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II.
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