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American Women in the War
by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, An Article Published in The Reader’s Digest 44 (January 1944)
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.
Some 12,000 of our Army and Navy nurses are now overseas, taking care of our sick and wounded fighting men. I have seen some of these nurses in Great Britain, in many of the islands of the Pacific, in New Zealand and Australia, and I have the greatest respect and admiration for them. They take everything in the spirit of soldiers, keeping their troubles to themselves. They suffer from homesickness, they experience the hardships of severe climates and the actual perils of war, yet they remain ever cheerful. Their smiles are wonderful medicine for the men they care for.
I recall vividly some of the nurses’ barracks I visited on my recent Pacific trip. Roofs constructed of native matting or of woven palms made good nesting places for rats and insects. In many places the climate was so damp that I doubt if the women ever put on a garment which was entirely dry. Some of the nurses lived for months at a time up near the combat zone, where it was impossible ever to get a hot bath. Add to all this the hazards of air raids and you have a stern test of hardihood. Yet I never heard a single nurse complain.
At home, many women have become nurses in civilian hospitals. With so many of our regular nurses at the far corners of the earth, these women have a heavy load to carry: they are just as much a part of the war effort as though they were actually at the front. Their spirit is illustrated by an 18-year-old student nurse whom I met on a train not long ago. She looked so young that I wondered if she realized what hard work she was embarking on. She assured me she knew quite well it would be very difficult; but she was determined to have a profession and be a useful member of her community.
Then there are the many women in our military services. Commanding officers feel that, in many cases, they have performed their duties more efficiently than the men whom they have freed for active service.
So far the Wacs have been the only ones allowed overseas. This seems to me ridiculous. The restriction on the activities of our other women’s military services is not due to any feeling of Congress or the military authorities that women cannot do the job. It is due, rather, to a false chivalry, which insists that women be protected from war hazards and hardships, even against their own wishes. Some women accept this point of view, but I believe most of us would rather share more fully in the experiences of our men.
I think this idea of sheltering women is a shortsighted policy, since one of the great postwar difficulties will be the readjustment of men and women who have been long separated. That readjustment will be easier if both have experienced a similar discipline and acquired a similar attitude toward life.
Besides those in uniform, over 2,300,000 of our women have gone into war industries; 1,900,000 of them are doing regular factory work. Many of these workers feel they are not being allowed to produce as much as they could. I think their dissatisfaction would be remedied if we had labor-management committees in all war industries throughout the country, so that their ideas and grievances could obtain a hearing.
Some of the married women workers are not doing their best because we haven’t taken into consideration their personal problems. Their homes must still go on. Their children must be cared for. Day nurseries are now being established, but they are not always properly organized. Sometimes they are not located conveniently for the mothers—I was told of one nursery which was five blocks from a bus stop, which meant that a woman had to walk 20 blocks every day. To a tired woman carrying a child, those blocks seem very long.
Working mothers also have difficult shopping problems. There are two workable solutions. One is an organized shopping service in every block, so that a woman may leave her entire order for the day with one person, and pick the packages up in the evening near her home. The other is to have certain shops in every neighborhood reserve a supply of staple foods from sale until the women return from work.
The task of buying food and cooking it for the family would be made far lighter if we adopted the British restaurant idea. In England the municipality and the Ministry of Food cooperate to set up restaurants which provide one good three-course meal a day at a reasonable price and without ration points.
These matters require detailed community organization. But while we have carefully organized our civilian defense services—many of which we may never need these—things which we do need have too often been completely neglected.
The many thousands of women who are not doing any unusual work, but are simply running their houses quietly and efficiently, are contributing more to the war effort than they themselves realize. The woman who meets war difficulties with a smile, who does her best with rationing and other curtailments, who writes her man overseas the kind of letters he must have to carry him through successfully, is making a great contribution to this difficult period. If, in addition to this work at home, a woman is giving her services to any of the volunteer organizations, our hats must be off to her.
Undoubtedly there are some women who are leading the same sort of life today that they have always led; but I think they must be having a difficult time finding companionship. For the vast majority of women in this country, life has changed. Their thoughts and their hearts are concerned with what is happening in North Africa, Italy, the Southwest Pacific and countless other places in the world. They are only content as they feel they are contributing something toward the speedier ending of the war and a better chance for their particular men in the world of the future.
Source: Roosevelt, Eleanor, “American Women in the War,” The Reader’s Digest 44, (January 1944): 42-44, http://newdeal.feri.org/er/er14.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (September 18, 2014)