Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945

Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945

by Leila J. Rupp

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To discover how war can affect the status of women in industrial countries, Leila Rupp examines mobilization propaganda directed at women in Nazi Germany and the United States. Her book explores the relationship between ideology and policy, challenging the idea that wars improve the status of women by bringing them into new areas of activity.

Using fresh sources


To discover how war can affect the status of women in industrial countries, Leila Rupp examines mobilization propaganda directed at women in Nazi Germany and the United States. Her book explores the relationship between ideology and policy, challenging the idea that wars improve the status of women by bringing them into new areas of activity.

Using fresh sources for both Germany and the United States, Professor Rupp considers the images of women before and during the war, the role of propaganda in securing their support, and the ideal of feminine behavior in each country. Her analysis shows that propaganda was more intensive in the United States than in Germany, and that it figured in the success of American mobilization and the failure of the German campaign to enlist women's participation. The most important function of propaganda, however, consisted in adapting popular conceptions to economic need. The author finds that public images of women can adjust to wartime priorities without threatening traditional assumptions about social roles. The mode of adaptation, she suggests, helps to explain the lack of change in women's status in postwar society. Far-reaching in its implications for feminist studies, this book offers a new and fruitful approach to the social, economic, and political history of Germany and the United States.

Originally published in 1978.

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Mobilizing Women for War

German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945

By Leila J. Rupp


Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04649-5


Introduction: Woman's Place Is in the War

The phrase "woman's place is in the war" evokes the traditional slogan concerning a woman's relationship to the home and yet suggests a very real need for the participation of women in a war economy. For this reason, the phrase suggests the themes involved in an analysis of mobilization propaganda in Nazi Germany and the wartime United States.

One might ask why such a comparison should be attempted at all, since it may seem audacious, treasonous, or at the very least in bad taste to compare Nazi Germany and the United States. I am aware of the fundamental differences in ideological foundations, methods of social control, and ultimate objectives. I do not intend to minimize the horrors of the Third Reich, although they play a minor role at most in this study. Nevertheless, despite the significant differences, the National Socialist government of Germany and the wartime government of Franklin Roosevelt in the United States had much in common. A comparative study of propaganda and mobilization policies can shed light on the effects of war on the status of women in industrialized societies.

On the eve of the Second World War, both Germany and the United States were highly industrialized countries recovering from especially severe effects of the worldwide Depression. In both countries, the presence of women in the labor force led during the height of unemployment to the denunciation of "double earners," employed women whose husbands or fathers worked. In the course of mobilizing their war economies, both countries quickly solved their unemployment problems and eventually developed labor shortages. Both realized that women constituted the largest available reserve of workers. Neither country implemented a conscription system to compel women to enter the labor force, although both considered this course of action. To different extents, both utilized propaganda to urge women to take part in the war effort. For this reason, propaganda looms large in studying the mobilization of women in both countries.

That these two very different nations faced the problems of mobilizing women in similar ways speaks first for the constraints placed on a society by the existence of a highly industrialized economy, and second for the universality of sexual asymmetry in human communities. A modern industrialized society demands the participation of women in the labor force, especially in time of war. When the men leave their jobs to enter the armed forces, replacements must come from somewhere, and industry soon looks to the housekeeping women not already employed. But all societies also assign distinct roles to men and women, and these are reflected in public or popular images, defined as the descriptions or representations of people presented by the popular media for public consumption. Basic ideas about the proper roles of the sexes change extremely slowly, but public images are subject to sudden and temporary changes imposed by economic need. If the prevailing public image precludes the employment of women in fields previously defined as masculine, then the image will have to adjust to the needs of the economy in time of war.

Sex roles, in peace or war, prescribe the range of activities and modes of behavior for both sexes. Men in both German and American society were expected to support their families in peacetime and fight for their countries in wartime. Societal expectations and public images limit the full development of men and women both. But, according to feminist anthropologists, there is one crucial difference between these expectations. In all societies, they argue, achievement and status are measured according to standards that rank the male above the female. As Margaret Mead put it in Male and Female: "In every known society, the male's need for achievement can be recognized. Men may cook, or weave, or dress dolls or hunt hummingbirds, but if such activities are appropriate occupations of men, then the whole society, men and women alike, votes them as important. When the same occupations are performed by women, they are regarded as less important."

Public images reflect sex roles, but the two concepts are not identical. Sex roles are based on deeply rooted beliefs about male and female nature, while public images are susceptible to rapid change in response to economic need. Neither concept necessarily corresponds to the actual experiences of men and women. Clearly each sex is a heterogeneous group, individuals varying as to class, race, religion, age, and other factors. Public images are not concerned with diversity. But one of the most important bonds women share is in fact their common public image. One cannot study the experiences of women as a group, but one can study a popular conception of women, since it treats all women alike. All German women, in the public image, were "Aryan," all American women white and middle-class.

Certain historians in the vanguard of women's history argue that the time for "prescriptive history," or the history of ideologies about women, has passed. Critics call for a new kind of history that will recreate the life experiences of women in the past. I believe there is a tremendous need for such work, although the available sources and present historical methods may be woefully inadequate. I agree that one cannot describe the actual lives of women on the basis of what men, or women, thought about women or hoped women would be. But prescriptive history is nonetheless important because it describes one aspect of those experiences. Recent work on the methodology of women's history has emphasized the need to construct a framework of various factors for use in studying the situation of women in the past. One important element in such a framework is the public image of women. I thus agree with Viola Klein that attitudes are a significant component of history: "As people generally tend to live up to what is expected of them, it seems important to expose the particular set of views held in our culture with regard to woman's social role, characteristic traits and psychological abilities."

Certainly not all women live up to what is expected of them, nor do they all even try. But if they do not, they must generally be aware that their behavior does not correspond to their public image. Historians have begun to realize that popular ideologies may be at odds with reality, that the battle cry "woman's place is in the home" may have reached the peak of its popularity not only when women were leaving their homes in increasing numbers, but precisely because this was happening. But, as Klein has pointed out, this disparity is itself important: "Slowest to come are the changes in cultural attitudes and popular ideologies, and it is here that the causes of the typical conflict of contemporary women are to be found."

This study, then, concerns public or popular images of women in prewar and wartime society. It does not attempt to analyze the actual experiences of women, black or white, rich or poor, Jewish or "Aryan," in Germany and the United States during the war. Eleanor F. Straub has examined one aspect of the wartime lives of American women through the lens of government policy in her dissertation, "Government Policy Toward Civilian Women During World War II," and provided a valuable contribution to the scanty scholarship on the American homefront. There is at present no comparable work on Germany. As Straub suggested in her preface, this is a rich and open field.

Certain other aspects of mobilization and propaganda are not included in this study. I do not consider women in the armed forces. The story of the women's branches in the United States needs to be told, but that would be a book in itself. Ursula von Gersdorff's introduction to her documentary history of German women in war service includes women auxiliaries employed by the armed forces; the German military did not include female branches, but employed women as civilians. In the United States, the armed forces used women in noncombat roles, and eventually cooperated with the War Manpower Commission in launching joint recruitment campaigns. Even before this, military recruitment efforts closely approximated civilian mobilization propaganda.

I also do not consider in any detail the propaganda directed at housewives urging them to take up volunteer work or practice wartime housekeeping. While it is important to note that such campaigns existed in both countries, they cannot be considered "mobilization" propaganda except in a very loose sense. I have concentrated on propaganda urging women to take war jobs because it was here that the war offered the greatest challenge to the prewar public images of women.

Because I am concerned with public images, my chapters on prewar and wartime popular conceptions rely on published or public sources: books, articles, pamphlets, magazines, advertisements, photographs, posters, slide shows, radio scripts, and movies. Secondary accounts of radio and film have been consulted to support my research in the other sources, and I have concentrated on nonfictional sources directly concerned with women's "place" in society. Literature has not been considered in any detail, although fiction, especially popular magazine stories and best-selling novels, reflects and contributes to the public image of women. The exclusion of literature is justified, I believe, for a number of reasons. First, literature played a minor role at best in the creation of the Nazi ideal. I have taken note of the short stories and poems about women included in magazines and anthologies such as the N .S. Frauenbuch [National Socialist Women's Book], but this literature does not warrant a great deal of attention. Second, though literature is more important for the chapter on the American prewar image, the secondary sources have adequately dealt with fiction in this period. Third, the war was too short a span of time to have an immediate impact on the image of women in literature. The magazine fiction that did respond to the need for the mobilization of women was a part of mobilization propaganda, and I have taken note of it.

These are the limits of my study. I have divided it into five chapters, exclusive of the introduction and conclusion, devoting four of them to the images of women in each country before and during the war, with a middle chapter on mobilization and propaganda in both countries. The structure is determined by the nature of the material. By devoting separate chapters to public images, I hope to facilitate comparison not only between countries, but also between prewar and wartime images in each country. These comparisons revolve around the central chapter, which compares mobilization and propaganda policy in both countries.

The second chapter examines the prewar image of women in Germany as National Socialist ideology fashioned it. The Nazi ideal was a consciously new creation based on the tenets of National Socialism, but drawing heavily on traditional ideas about women. The third chapter examines the ideal American woman and suggests points of similarity with the German ideal, though Nazi ideology and American attitudes cannot be subjected to the same kind of analysis. I began my work with the assumption that there was an American "ideology," but my research in the sources convinced me that "ideology" is too rigid a term to apply to American conceptions of women.

The fourth chapter examines the mobilization of women in both countries: the statistical picture, the unenforced German conscription system, the agencies in both countries responsible for the mobilization of women, the reasons for the German decision not to conscript women, the promotional campaigns of the War Manpower Commission and the Office of War Information in the United States, and the propaganda effort in Germany. The fifth chapter looks at the image of women in wartime Germany in order to analyze the effects of mobilization propaganda on the prewar image. The American wartime image is similarly analyzed in the sixth chapter. The conclusion examines the complex role of propaganda, in conjunction with other factors such as financial incentive, the availability of child care, the existence of "status barriers," and patriotism in American success and German failure to mobilize women. Next, it explores the way in which public images can adapt to the needs of the economy in wartime without challenging traditional assumptions about women's role in society. Finally, it argues that the mode of adaptation of public images to the needs of the war explains, at least in part, the lack of change in the status of women in the immediate postwar period.


Mother of the Volk: The Image of Women in Nazi Ideology

Though our weapon ... is only the ladle, its impact will be no less than that of other weapons. Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, 1937

During the Nazi "time of struggle" and in the early years of the Third Reich, a complex image of women evolved from divergent strands of National Socialist ideology. Although Hitler and other male party leaders conceptualized a simple and limited role for women, the debate did not end with their pronouncements. A small group of Nazi feminists attacked the misogynist views of the top Nazi officials, arguing that women must take an active and equal role in the National Socialist state. The mainstream Nazi conception of women, represented by the great bulk of Nazi literature on women, insisted that they played a vital role in the state as "mothers of the Volk."

This mainstream image evolved to some extent from interaction with more extreme views and in response to the external reality of economic demands. But the image remained relatively stable throughout the interwar period, while Nazi policy toward women shifted in response to the changing economic situation, particularly the Depression. The blend of traditional ideas and Nazi principles that characterized the mainstream Nazi image of women gave it the flexibility to meet altered economic circumstances and also the potential to attract two very different groups: conservative and traditional middle-class housewives who sought confirmation of their roles within the home; and their rebellious daughters who longed for an active role and rejected the bourgeois life style of their mothers. Only a thorough examination of Nazi writings on women can lead to an understanding of both the flexibility and the appeal of the Nazi picture of women.

Nazi ideology in general has been surprisingly neglected, and this is doubly true of the Nazi view of women. A number of books and articles on the subject published outside the Third Reich before the outbreak of the war indicate some interest in the plight of German women. During the war, Allied-sponsored pamphlets and articles discussed the role of women in Germany in an attempt to show that a propaganda campaign aimed at them might serve as a useful weapon in the war effort. But once the war ended, the literature on Nazi Germany almost unanimously ignored women. Although once Reader's Digest had carried an article about Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, the leader of the Nazi women's organizations, postwar histories quickly forgot her name. Not until two decades after the war did interest in women in Nazi Germany revive, notably with the publication of David Schoenbaum's chapter on women in Hitler's Social Revolution.

In spite of renewed interest in the subject, there is still no thorough study of women in Nazi ideology. The wealth of books, pamphlets, and articles published before and during the Third Reich testifies to the liveliness and complexity of the issues, and provides the historian with abundant source material for a reconstruction of the National Socialist image of women.

All Nazi views on the subject shared two basic principles that characterized them as National Socialist. One was the superiority of the "Aryan" race and the importance of its struggle for existence in a hostile world. The other, lauded as a guide for individual action, found expression in the slogan, "Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz," the common good before the individual good. The mainstream conception of women owed its flexibility to this second principle, for the ideal Nazi woman owed service to the state above all else. The shifting demands of economic policy, like the unchanging demands of population policy, found a common basis in the Nazi principle of sacrifice for the common good.


Excerpted from Mobilizing Women for War by Leila J. Rupp. Copyright © 1978 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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