Marilyn E. Hegarty. Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: the Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 251 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-3704-0.
Reviewed by Ann Pfau
Published on H-War (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Janet G. Valentine
A Dubious Standard
Marilyn Hegarty’s new book explains how the sexual double standard, combined with class and racial prejudices, turned the U.S. government’s war against venereal disease into a “war against women who transgressed [sexual] boundaries” (p. 112). Led by Eliot Ness and the Social Protection Division (SPD), the government effort to combat sexually transmitted diseases (STD) among soldiers by eradicating prostitution near military bases quickly expanded into a campaign against promiscuous and “potentially promiscuous” women. In cities and towns across the United States, local officials detained and forcibly tested women identified by infected soldiers as sexual contacts. Other women were incarcerated on the basis of even slimmer evidence. Non-white and working-class women were particularly vulnerable to arrest, but even a middle-class service wife might come under suspicion if caught eating or traveling alone. Hegarty provides the example of a white waitress lunching alone in Leesville, Louisiana, in 1942; the waitress attracted the attention of local authorities, who charged her with vagrancy and tested her for STDs. A married woman, the waitress insisted she was faithful to her husband but was released only when she proved disease-free. Different test results would likely have resulted in her confinement to a quarantine camp or hospital for treatment and “rehabilitation.” Although no full statistics exist for the number of American women detained for prostitution, promiscuity, and potential promiscuity, Hegarty found that during one six-month period in 1942, authorities arrested 7,500 women in fifteen states on morals charges.
Men--both civilian and military--were not subject to the same regulation. Government officials expected men, particularly soldiers, to be sexually active. Indeed, Hegarty argues that military authorities, perhaps unconsciously, encouraged soldiers “to prove their manhood by sexual derring-do.” She writes, “The constant attention paid to sex, including safe sex, through lectures, films, pamphlets and posters, along with the military practice of providing instruction in prophylaxis, created dissonance between any notion of male continence or sexual reserve and the stereotype of the virile, aggressive military male” (p. 108). Sexually active GIs had easy access to condoms and prophylactics. Military regulations required servicemen to submit to treatment, and to report sexual contacts. Those who cooperated with military authorities were spared punishment; their sexual partners were arrested. Underlying these policies was the assumption that the female contact, rather than the male soldier, was the carrier of disease.
Stigmatized as diseased and dangerous, young women were nevertheless mobilized by the state to serve as military morale builders. Indeed, military officials hoped that carefully choreographed contact with women in service clubs and USO lounges would deter male soldiers from seeking other, less reputable, sources of female companionship (pp. 87-88). Advertisements and popular magazines likewise condemned promiscuity while encouraging female readers to make themselves sexual alluring to soldiers. For Hegarty, the term “patriotute”--coined by Otis Anderson of the U.S. Public Health Service--best communicates how these mixed messages served to “blur the line between patriotism and promiscuity,” between “good” and “bad” women (pp. 1, 112, 120). She argues that the wartime media produced confusion about proper standards of feminine behavior. Yet missing from this book is a sense of how American women actually received and responded to mass culture proscriptions and advice.
Wartime ambivalence about female (and male) sexuality was also reflected in debates over whether to criminalize prostitution or to regulate the practice by screening and licensing prostitutes. Policymakers--both military and civilian--generally agreed that male soldiers should not, or could not, be sexually restrained. Indeed, they assumed that the war would provide servicemen with increased opportunities for sexual gratification. Some advocates of regulation argued that not only would the policy protect soldiers from disease, it would also protect respectable women from soldiers. They believed that a “buffer of whores” would reduce the incidence of rape and seduction by servicemen. Hegarty comments, “This challenge to repression, that the nation’s choice was regulated prostitution or rape, speaks volumes regarding perceptions of male sexuality” (pp. 91-92). However, she allows this opportunity to analyze popular views of male sexuality and female virtue to drop. Hegarty’s framework--that “women were socially stigmatized as purveyors of venereal disease,” while “white men were constructed as innocent victims ... in need of protection”--seems to hinder such analysis (p. 84).
Although the dangerously diseased but seemingly “clean” young woman was the primary symbol of the U.S. government’s venereal disease (VD)-control efforts, the virtuous wife and sweetheart also played an important--and guilt-inducing--role in army posters, lectures, and pamphlets. The innocent victim, in the latter scenario, was not the soldier but his wife and his future children, whose health might be impaired as a result of the soldier’s sexual incontinence. A measure of the effectiveness of VD-prevention campaigns that appealed to domestic concerns was that in the summer of 1945, servicemen in Italy reported that their greatest fear related to STDs was that they might infect family members; it ranked high above fear for their own health. In this particular construct, the distinction between “good” and “bad” woman was not as slippery as Hegarty would have us think. Of course, the author’s focus on domestic--rather than overseas--VD-prevention campaigns might explain her failure to examine such representations.
Overall, this is a well-researched and insightful study of wartime sexual morals and gender roles that will be of particular interest to historians of women, social policy, sexuality, war and society, and the American World War II home front. It is particularly effective where it analyzes policymakers’ debates and decisions. Although government officials do most of the talking, Hegarty also allows women arrested on morals charges to speak and act for themselves. Despite the limits of documents authored by social workers, lawyers, journalists, and public officials, Hegarty successfully communicates the incarcerated women’s confusion, fear, and indignation. The social historian in me admires this achievement and wishes for more.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Ann Pfau. Review of Hegarty, Marilyn E., Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: the Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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