Women, Identity, and War in the 20th Century

AHA Session 39
Thursday, January 5, 2017: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Room 601 (Colorado Convention Center, Meeting Room Level)
Kara Dixon Vuic, Texas Christian University
Determined Women or Nylon-Starved Housewives?
Michael Timonin, independent scholar
Were Not WACs, We're Soldiers”
Therese M. Strohmer, University of North Carolina, Greensboro and Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project
Amanda Boczar, United States Military Academy

Session Abstract

Twentieth century history includes a number of global conflicts that caused major social upheaval, leading to shifting conceptions of race, gender, and class. This panel explores American women’s efforts to establish their identity in the midst of the swiftly changing militarization of American society during this time. These papers contribute to an increasingly complex historiography of the impact of the military on American women during the twentieth century. This panel intends to open further dialogue on the unique nature of women’s interaction with militaries.

Sarah E. Patterson’s paper, ‘“Be a Marine: Free a Marine to Fight”: Women’s Identity and Military Recruitment in World War II,” utilizes WWII recruitment posters to examine the government’s official portrayal of gender roles, while at the same time encouraging women to work in occupations previously closed to them. Conflicting images of the ideal wartime woman show the contested nature of women’s identity during this time.

Mike Timonin’s paper, “Determined Women or Nylon-starved Housewives?,” adds to the complexity of our understanding of the ways women’s roles changed during the twentieth century by exploring the tendency to return to familiar gender identities during the post-WWII era. Timonin investigates the women of the “Bring Back Daddy Club” and their efforts to secure their ideal of the nuclear family in the wake of prolonged separation from their husbands.

In her paper, ‘“Somebody Special”: Imagining American Women in Cold War National Defense,” Tanya Roth shows the continuing debate about women’s roles in the Cold War era, focusing on the increasing integration of women in the American military. Roth examines the contradiction between efforts to maintain the feminized image of the military woman and legislated integration of men and women’s positions within military service.

Patterson and Timonin’s papers explore the changes in women’s understanding of their place within public spaces during World War II previously occupied primarily by men, from military service to political protest. Roth’s paper shows the continuing changes in women’s identity during the Cold War. These papers support work by Cynthia Enloe, Elizabeth Escobedo, Karen Anderson, Penny Summerfield, and many other scholars of the impact of the military, militarization, and war on women’s lives.

Amanda Boczar, of the United States Military Academy, provides commentary on this panel, utilizing her specialized knowledge of gender and the American military to assist in putting these papers into a broader context. Boczar’s current work on the West Point Guide to Gender and Warfare, presently in production, fits well with this panel’s papers, giving Boczar important insight into this panel’s subject.

Additionally, Kara Dixon Vuic, Benjamin W. Schmidt Professor of War, Conflict, and Society at Texas Christian University, chairs this panel.

Together, these panelists show the complexity of the continuous creation of women’s identity in the twentieth century, especially as relates to their relationship with the U.S. military.

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