The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1986, Volume 32, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Women at War with America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era.

By D’Ann Campbell. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: Harvard University Press, 1984. Illustrations. Tables. Notes. Index. 304 pp.

Reviewed by Ronald Schaffer, Professor of History, California State University, Northridge and author of Wings of Judgment: American Bombing in World War II.

Campbell disagrees with those who feel that the World War II experiences led in a direct way to the feminist attitudes of the 1980’s. The women of the forties, she feels, were fighting for something – but it wasn’t to break out of prescribed patterns of women’s behavior. Rather it was for companionship and security within the home. Women resisted wartime attempts to control them and their resistance sometimes took the form of declining government requests to leave the home for war work and of refusing to send their children to child care centers that government agencies thought they should use. Women did play a patriotic part in the war, but they defined patriotism partly as preserving the American family against arbitrary public demands to change it.

Campbell describes what happened to women in military service, and to women workers of various kinds, including volunteers and housewives as well as paid blue- and white-collar employees. She calls upon a large variety of sources including raw census data, works by sociologists, military records, and motion pictures. However, the way she uses these sources is not altogether satisfying. She pays attention to frequently overlooked groups, such as older women, black women, and the handicapped. Yet she does not analyze systematically the attitudes and behavior of American women as a whole grouped by race, class, region, age, ethnic background and other variables. Part of this problem lies in the incompleteness of her sources. Still, one occasionally wonders if she is generalizing about the entire female population of the United States from information about a special group – say women from Iowa, Boston, or Illinois who happened to answer a survey – or from the testimony of a single observer. At times she offers oversimplified explanations; for instance, she rebuts claims that army nurses were sexually immoral by citing their low pregnancy rate.

There are other problems as well. Much of her material is necessarily trivial. In some chapters she inundates the reader with abstract data. (Perhaps the solution is to use a computer to transform this kind of data into charts, place the charts in an appendix, and concentrate on readable written conclusions in the text.) Campbell does not deal sufficiently with the reasons behind things: why men feared changes in women’s roles; how cultural and economic history, including the history of industrial and office management techniques, led groups of women workers to be alienated from one another and male workers to be alienated from female workers; why army leaders had so much difficulty accepting a Women’s Army Corps; why male soldiers found it so hard to accept the idea of women in combat. While she briefly mentions a few wartime films that portrayed women’s roles, she misses the chance to explore thoroughly how women responded to subtle manipulation by films and other media. She equates intractability to government manipulation with positive resistance to government control.

Campbell does show, however, how seemingly modern forms such as women’s networks and use of mentors existed in an earlier era. She makes amply clear why so many women in the 1940’s should have preferred the relative freedom of housework to routinized labor in filthy, noisy, dangerous factories. She makes a strong effort to let the reader see more than one side to controversial issues, such as union discrimination against women. And she produces a great deal of evidence of how ordinary American women perceived their situations and acted during the Second World War.