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Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II

Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II

4.5 4
by Emily Yellin

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"Our women are serving actively in many ways in this war, and they are doing a grand job on both the fighting front and the home front."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt, 1944

Our Mothers' War is a stunning and unprecedented portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society.



"Our women are serving actively in many ways in this war, and they are doing a grand job on both the fighting front and the home front."

-- Eleanor Roosevelt, 1944

Our Mothers' War is a stunning and unprecedented portrait of women during World War II, a war that forever transformed the way women participate in American society.

Never before has the vast range of American women's experience during this pivotal era been brought together in one book. Now, Our Mothers' War re-creates what American women from all walks of life were doing and thinking, on the home front and abroad.

Like all great histories, Our Mothers' War began with an illuminating discovery. After finding a journal and letters her mother had written while serving with the Red Cross in the Pacific, journalist Emily Yellin started unearthing what her mother and other women of her mother's generation went through during a time when their country asked them to step into roles they had never been invited, or allowed, to fill before.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, including personal interviews and previously unpublished letters and diaries, Yellin shows what went on in the hearts and minds of the real women behind the female images of World War II -- women working in war plants; mothers and wives sending their husbands and sons off to war and sometimes death; women joining the military for the first time in American history; nurses operating in battle zones in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific; and housewives coping with rationing.

Yellin also delves into lesser-known stories, including: tales of female spies, pilots, movie stars, baseball players, politicians, prostitutes, journalists, and even fictional characters; firsthand accounts from the wives of the scientists who created the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, African-American women who faced Jim Crow segregation laws at home even as their men were fighting enemy bigotry and injustice abroad, and Japanese-American women locked up as prisoners in their own country. Yellin explains how Wonder Woman was created in 1941 to fight the Nazi menace and became the first female comic book superhero, as well as how Marilyn Monroe was discovered in 1944 while working with her mother-in-law packing parachutes at a war plant in Burbank, California.

Our Mothers' War gives center stage to those who might be called "the other American soldiers."

Editorial Reviews

Alan L. Gropman
Emily Yellin, an experienced journalist, provides an exceptionally well-written, soundly researched description of the numerous and vitally important contributions of American women.
The Washington Post
Laura Shapiro
Stop the presses: the greatest generation had women in it. America's collective memory has largely failed them; but as Emily Yellin points out in her important new book, Our Mothers' War, some 350,000 women served in the military during World War II.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
After years of planting Victory gardens, volunteering at USOs and coping with increased home front responsibilities, in early 1945 Yellin's mother quit her desk job at Reader's Digest and shipped out to the Pacific Front to join the Red Cross. Wartime manpower shortages were bending gender rules, and many women seized the opportunity to try something different. While feminist historians have analyzed the meaning of their war experience, journalist Yellin takes a more subjective approach. This nonjudgmental, anecdotal account covers the usual range of topics-women in war industries, in volunteer work, in the armed forces, in undercover operations-but Yellin avoids retelling the familiar. Thus, she discusses the experiences of Lena Horne and Julia Child more fully than those of Eleanor Roosevelt, and delves deeper into the anti-Semitic Mothers' Movement and Hawaiian prostitutes walking picket lines than more mainstream organizations like the CIO women's committees. Yellin describes the exclusion of African-American women from most military units and the internment of Japanese-American women, but adds little to present scholarship on minority women's participation. Indeed, since her most original material comes from interviews with relatives, family friends and contacts, the book is strongest on the experiences of educated white women, which were surprisingly diverse. For WAVES director Mildred McAfee-the president of Wellesley College before the war-life in the navy took her out of her "cloister" and thrust her into a world where "women are women and men are men." For others, like Yellin's mother, the war let their genies out of the bottle. Agent, Jennifer Gates. (May 4) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
A frequent contributor to the New York Times and Newsweek, Yellin is very clear about her approach to her subject. Inspired by her mother's life during World War II, she sought to illuminate women's experiences without writing a complete overview of the war or a historical primer on women in public life. The result is an extremely successful cross between eyeopening oral history and traditional historical narrative. Yellin excels at interpolating quotes from the women, even if she draws a great deal on secondary sources. The 13 chapters cover a remarkable range of women of the era; beyond Rosie the Riveter, servicewomen's contributions, and minority perspectives, Yellin looks closely at professional workers, espionage agents, prostitutes, and politicized women's groups. The only weakness is the incorporation of fictional characters as part of the social structure. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries, especially women's collections.-Elizabeth Morris, formerly with Otsego Dist. P.L., Otsego, MI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-An exceptionally well-written, exhaustively researched book. During World War II, females were confined to auxiliary roles. Yellin reveals all of the responsibilities held by women, including helping to manufacture aircraft, ships, and other munitions; and, in the process, outproducing all of America's allies and enemies, by far. Readers see war brides who worked hard to maintain the morale of their husbands while surviving long separation, fear, and shortages of virtually everything necessary to support a family. Yellin writes about performers like Betty Grable, who traveled to combat theaters to raise the spirits of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. Our Mothers' War is an important book because the role played by women in World War II has been regularly ignored.-Alan Gropman, National Defense University, Washington, DC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Or, Rosie the Riveter reconsidered. In this lively, smart, sometimes contrarian work of social history, New York Times writer Yellin explores the manifold roles of women in WWII: nurses, musicians, athletes, pilots, homemakers, factory workers, political activists, even prostitutes. In doing so, she turns up intriguing observations about a society turned on its head by the all-encompassing conflict. When war came, she writes of one such transformation, "warnings to young women started coming with a fury . . . from parents, from the clergy, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines" urging them not to give in to the temptations of wartime romance-for why pin your happiness to a boy who might soon die? The young women didn't listen, and "despite the naysaying, 1.8 million couples married in 1942, a huge increase from the year before." When the men did go off to war, the women remade the home front, enduring plenty of psychic shocks along the way (such as having to go back to living with their parents in order to economize). They faced great opposition, and their contributions were not always fairly rewarded: though the Army and Navy offered equal pay in plants they controlled, most civilian contractors paid women less than men ("by 1944," Yellin writes, "the average weekly wage for female factory workers was $31 . . . while it was $55 a week for men"). Many jobs were not open to women at all, especially those close to combat zones; only about half of Army nurses went overseas, whereas fewer than one in ten Navy nurses did so until late in the war. In a superb moment among many high points, Yellin relates the strange and sad tale of "Tokyo Rose." In another, she traces the invention of"Betty Crocker." In still another, she revisits the moment when the single vote against declaration of war on Japan was cast in Congress: "As a woman," said Rep. Jeanette Rankin, "I can't go to war and I refuse to send anyone else." A superb contribution to the literature of WWII. Agent: Jennifer Gates/Zachary Shuster Harmsworth

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Our Mothers' War

American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II
By Emily Yellin

Free Press

Copyright © 2004 Emily Yellin
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-4514-8

Chapter One

To Bring Him Home Safely

Wives, Mothers, and Sisters of Servicemen

Hail to the women of America! You have taken up your heritage from the brave women of the past. Just as did the women of other wars, you have taken your positions as soldiers on the Home Front.... The efforts and accomplishments of women today are boundless!

But whatever else you do - you are, first and foremost, homemakers - women with the welfare of your families deepest in your hearts.... Never has there been such an opportunity, and a need, for what American women can contribute.

So to you women behind the men, behind the guns, we offer this little book, with its daily helps for wartime mealplanning and cooking.

And we salute you all!

Betty Crocker, 19431

After Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, and the United States officially joined the war already in progress against Japan, Germany, and Italy, the warnings to young women started coming with a fury. From parents, from the clergy, on the radio, in newspapers and magazines, and even from boyfriends, they went something like this: Be wary of wartime romance. Hasty war marriages are recipes for heartache, for failure. Don't tie your fate to an uncertain future. There will be plenty of time for emotion after the war. Real love can wait.

Apparently, not everyone listened. Because despite the naysaying, 1.8 million couples married in 1942, a huge increase from the year before. One bride of a young draftee described her reasons in the June 1942 Good Housekeeping.

"He may come back a cripple.... The separation will break you up.... You can't tell how you'll change or how he'll change." Maybe. But I married my soldier anyway.

... The deciding factor was the realization that this topsy-turvy world might not right itself for years. Perhaps my reasoning is perverse. But it seems to me that the world's chaos and uncertainty are reasons for marriage, not for postponement.

When the writer's boyfriend, Danny, got his draft card during Christmas vacation, he would not consider getting married. Like many men at the time, he didn't feel it was fair to her. But he changed his mind when the couple visited a friend, Irita, the wife of an Air Corps lieutenant.

"If you love a man," Irita said, "you are involved in his destiny whether you are married or not. Everyone, in peace or war, runs a risk when he falls in love. A husband or wife may be killed crossing a street. If you want to protect yourself emotionally, the to do is not to fall in love at all."

It was too late to stop that. The couple had already fallen in love. And Irita's words finally swayed Danny to consider marriage. As they discussed it in earnest, their concerns echoed those of most couples on the brink of war marriages. They talked about how Danny may come back wounded, or missing a leg or an arm. She assured him she would love him anyway. They talked, as best they could, about the possibility he might not come back at all. They agreed to delay children until after the war. And they decided she would finish college and then find a job to help build a financial foundation for their postwar life. A young wife working had not been the norm before the war, but as the writer said, "This was no time to bother with peacetime conventions about the husband's being the breadwinner."

Finally, they set about convincing their parents. Warnings and concerns about the dangers of wartime marriages surfaced again. But after many talks and many tears, their parents warmed to the idea. As the writer said, "Danny and I are making the best of a difficult situation. In war, love is a luxury. It comes at a high price.... This brand of marriage, I guess, takes steady nerves." They were married New Year's Day 1942. She was nineteen and he was twenty-two. They believed the sacrifices they were making were worth it.

Both Danny and I feel that the democratic way of life is deeply a part of us. We want to defend it with all we have, with all our heart and soul. We're young, we've got a future to fight for, we wouldn't want to raise those babies we're going to have in a country that wasn't worth fighting for.

War Brides

And so it was for younger women all across the country, as young men joined up or were drafted, and left home. A book published in 1943 called Marriage Is a Serious Business was meant to sober up couples caught in a fleeting wartime romance, as its cautionary title suggests. The author, the Reverend Dr. Randolph Ray, was rector of the Little Church Around the Corner at Madison Avenue and 23rd Street in New York City, a popular marriage spot. According to the church's history, 2,900 weddings took place during 1943 alone, most performed by Reverend Ray. In fact, just about every Saturday, a line of young couples would form in the nineteenth-century church's idyllic, ivy-covered courtyard, waiting for their turn to say their vows, quickly, and without much fanfare or family present, and often just before the groom was to be shipped off to war. Not wanting to condone easy wedlock, Reverend Ray spoke clearly in the book of the pressures he saw facing wartime marriages, and especially war brides.

Reverend Ray opposed war marriages because he felt they lacked the essentials of enduring marriage. Instead of time for adjustment, he said, there is separation. Instead of shared experience, each partner is having new and often overwhelming experiences alone. Thereby, a gulf is created instead of a bond. And he singled out women as the ones who had the greater responsibility and duty to shoulder the majority of the emotional burdens in any marriage, adding that in wartime a woman's obligation grew more acute and intense.

The problems of marriage are preponderantly the problems of women. Now, in time of war, the future seems to depend on what the women do today. Everything depends on that. The future is based on women's preparation for it.

Yet, no amount of preparation could have braced many newlywed couples, both the women and the men, for the challenging terrain they were to travel during the four years of war.

Genevieve Eppens grew up on her parents' farm in Nebraska and was seventeen years old when she married her sweetheart, Glen, on February 19, 1942. He was twenty-one. As she said, they were "very much in love and just wanted to be together." But looking back, she saw they had no idea how painful fulfilling that simple wish would be.

Both of us were so young and naive, how could we have imagined that we would soon lose all control of our lives?

... How could we have known the next three-and-a-half years would seem like a nightmare, that I would become a mother and be traveling thousands of miles alone with a little baby just to see my husband ...?

The war had begun December 7, 1941, but I really hadn't comprehended how it could affect us. I thought wars were something you studied about in history books. World War I had been fought long before I was even born. So, we had five wonderful months, and then we had to grow up real fast ....

As the war intensified, my daily trips to the mailbox became a real worry to us. We knew one day his draft notice would be delivered and in the latter part of July it arrived. We had often seen the poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and the caption "I Want You," and we knew he meant it ....

The week before he had to report, we moved our things to the farm [her parents' home] where I expected to stay for the duration. I was two months' pregnant and needed my parents to help me.

... We didn't dare think about the future. Our main concern was for him to be accepted in the Coast Guard or Navy.... Glen thought he would rather be on a ship than end up in some dirty foxhole.

Glen was accepted into the Coast Guard and had one last evening with his wife and her family before he had to report for duty in Omaha at eight the next morning.

There was so little anyone could say, and finally the folks went back to finish whatever they were doing, and we slowly headed for our bedroom to be alone.

I don't remember if I slept that night or not. We were up early and all sat down to one of Mother's big farm-style breakfasts of home-made sausage, hot biscuits with gravy, and fresh eggs. When [his ride] arrived, Glen kissed my baby sister Wanda, Dad and Mom, and then my younger brother Willis, who burst into tears and stomped from the house muttering, "Those damn Japs!" Glen hugged me close, we kissed each other and both said, "I love you," and he was gone.

I stood at the door with my mother and father, watching the car disappear over the hill. I had been raised around people who didn't show their emotions. I was a seventeen-year-old girl, two months' pregnant, and had just felt the collapse of my world, but I didn't know how to react. Finally, I burst into a torrent of tears and ran into my parents' bedroom, threw myself across the bed, and sobbed for hours.

... The days passed slowly, one by one.... I received long letters from Glen every day, repeating over and over how much he missed me, how much he loved me, and how he wished he could feel our baby kick and move inside me. I wrote him every day and walked to and from the mailbox about a mile, with his little dog beside me.... I read and reread his letters as Butch and I walked back to the house. Neither of us had much news to write, but we poured out our hearts to each other, longing for the day when we could be together again.

War Wives and Their Children

It was not only young brides who had to endure this strange new loneliness. Women who had been married for a while, and had children, also began to see their husbands head off to war. At first, men with families were exempt from the draft. But as the war escalated through 1942 and 1943, most able-bodied men between eighteen and thirty-five were either called away or volunteered.

The mail became the lifeline for many relationships. Many women wrote to their husbands every day. But delivery of the mail to and from overseas military outposts was sporadic. Sometimes, both on the home front and overseas, weeks or months would go by without a letter, and then in one day five letters would arrive. At least one mail carrier could not take the pressure. Mabel Wiggins remembered noticing that the mailman who had delivered to her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, for several years suddenly stopped coming.

I said to a neighbor, "Isn't that funny? I thought our mailman just had a vacation." And she said, "He couldn't stand all the women left behind who were always meeting him at the door and saying, 'You don't have a letter for me this morning?' He said he just couldn't stand all the worry, so he asked to be put in the office somewhere."

Isabel Alden used her letters to her husband to share the intimate feelings of a wife and mother putting her married life on hold for the duration of the war. She had met and married Maurice Kidder in the mid-1930s while they were students at the University of New Hampshire at Durham. They then moved to Boston, where Maurice attended theological seminary. And they had two children, Joel and Phyllis, before the war. Maurice joined the Army in the summer of 1942, and was shipped to England in October as part of the Chaplain's Corps. Isabel moved back to New Hampshire to finish her schooling while Maurice was away. In an October 1942 letter to him just after he left the country, and at the beginning of what was to become a three-year separation, she expressed her already piercing longing for him. She talked of walking home in the afternoon just after a football game ended between New Hampshire and Maine and seeing a sailor and his girlfriend happily holding hands. She watched how happy they were, "And a lump as big as a cannon ball came up in my throat," Isabel wrote, "remembering homecoming games last year and how happy we were, and just wishing we were back in school again, anyway, and all was safe."

As the first year of their separation dragged on through the summer of 1943, Maurice continued to serve as an Army chaplain in England. The Germans had surrendered Stalingrad in February. The Allies had taken North Africa in May, and they were making headway into Italy, which surrendered in early September. But those victories seemed remote in Isabel's letters, as she kept on expressing a penetrating loneliness for her husband. And in an August 1943 letter, she didn't hold back from showing Maurice the kinds of heartbreaking feelings she also had to face every day in their children. She reported that before their son, Joel, went to sleep one night he told his mommy he would like life better if his daddy just went to work each morning and came home at night, the way it used to be. Isabel told Joel she would like that better too. But then she tried to explain to their little son that thousands of daddies had to go to war to fight for our country. To which Joel replied, "And thousands of them will get killed too."

In October 1943 Isabel wrote to her husband about the mounting insecurities and emptiness she was facing within herself. She talked of feeling "pretty low at times," when she thought about her wartime life. "There is no real test of courage ... in it," she wrote. Letting her worry build, she wondered how she would compare to "the women you will meet who are really doing things." She told her husband that all this inadequacy made her feel "hopeless" and "left out." Then she wrote, "You and I have never had anything big like this which we did not share before. What will it do to us?"

Isabel told her husband how thoughts of him were with her constantly, even as she went about her daily routine, getting dressed, going to the hairdresser, cooking, and "nagging at the children." She ended the letter with her longing for connection to his everyday life, expressing her need in a way that was safe to do only with a most trusted partner. "I wish, if it doesn't ask too much, that you would put what you think and feel as you go along, down on paper for me. Try, even though it is hard for you. Hold me close."

It is unclear from her letters if Maurice was ever stationed anywhere but England. If he was, it was only briefly. And by early 1944 he was still serving in Britain as an Army chaplain. Like most wives, Isabel followed as much news of the war and its progress as she could take in, but sometimes even a seemingly happy newspaper clipping could set off her personal despair, as she expressed in a March 1944 letter.


Excerpted from Our Mothers' War by Emily Yellin Copyright © 2004 by Emily Yellin . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Emily Yellin is the author of Our Mothers’ War, and was a longtime contributor to the New York Times. She has also written for Time, the Washington Post, the International Herald Tribune, Newsweek, Smithsonian Magazine, and other publications. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin—Madison with a degree in English literature and received a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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Our Mothers' War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
emilywilliams81 More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I'm a huge fan of WWII stories, especially those that detail the role of women at home and abroad during the war. I just finished another great story about one of the first women to be a part of working on the team that inventoried the assets of the Bank of Japan just after the war ended. It's told through her letters home to her family. Letters Home is a great look at a part of the post war effort that's not often chronicled. I hope you'll check it out.
Sigly More than 1 year ago
Ms. Yellin left no rock un-turned in writing this book. I am a (modern day) veteran of the Air Force and WWII junkie and so naturally I was attracted to this subject matter. I did not realize how little I knew about women's roles before, during, and after WWII. I was suprised at how much this book inspired me and increased my sense of pride in being a woman and a veteran. This book definately helped me feel at one with, and to better understand, the women who paved the way for me to become a military member and a career woman.
Ms. Yellin hit on every topic regarding woman during WWII and she brought to light their struggles, their achievements, and their successes. I truly loved this book.
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