I'm flying through “Our Mothers' War”, a brilliant examination of the roles of women on the home front and abroad during World War II.
Written by former New York Times reporter (and Peppercom consultant) Emily Yellin, the book shines the spotlight on a completely overlooked aspect of the Second World War: what women did and how profoundly their actions changed society. It's also an inspirational read that examines an American society that was united as one in its fight against the Axis Powers (a far cry from today's pathetic, polarized, soon-to-be second-class successors).
The book is chock full of fun and little known facts, such as:
– Betty Crocker, the ultimate role model for American housewives in the 1930s and '40s, was a fictional character. Her surname came from a General Mills executive and another employee, who thought Betty was a bright, cheerful name. Most Americans never knew she was ersatz, though, and often wrote long and compassionate letters to Betty asking for advice. In 1943 a Fortune magazine poll named her the second most famous woman in America, after First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
– Captain Ronald Reagan sent a photographer out to search war factories and plants in Southern California for attractive Rosie the Riveter types to feature in the war effort's propaganda program. At a parachute factory, the photographer stumbled across an 18-year-old housewife named Norma Jean Dougherty, who stopped him in his tracks. He asked, “Where the hell have you been hiding?” Norma Jean agreed to pose for a few photographs. Those, in turn, led to a few more. All of which led to her divorcing her husband, dying her hair blond and changing her name to Marilyn Monroe.
– While I knew all about Bob Hope and the countless shows he arranged for front line troops, I had no idea how many A-level Hollywood actresses did the same thing. Marlene Dietrich, a German born actress who was despised by Hitler and actually placed on his hit list, courageously followed Patton's army as it plowed through Europe. Carole Landis, Martha Raye. Mitzi Mayfair and Kay Francis, all A-level actresses and performers, toured North Africa and actually sang for the troops in a makeshift bunker as they were being blitzed by bombs from Nazi planes.
I was amazed not so much by the image and perception of women 60 years ago but, rather, by their willingness to roll up their sleeves and pitch in (especially the Hollywood stars). Betty Grable, Bette Davis, Clark Gable and Tyrone Power all did their bit. Carole Lombard died on plane flight back from selling war bonds. Jimmy Stewart served as an Air Force colonel and flew scores of bombing missions over Germany.
Can you picture Lady Gaga, Britney, Lindsey, Leo, Johnny, Brad or any of today's superstars not only putting themselves in harm's way but, like their predecessors, actually serving coffee and food to the troops (and cleaning their pots and pans afterwards)? Unlike Carole Landis for example, those that have gone have not had to duck into bunkers to avoid bombing runs.
Yellin's book chronicles a major flash point in the evolving role of women in American society. And, as she points out December 7, 1941, was very likely the start of the feminist movement in America.
Our Mothers' War is a great read for women or men interested in history. But, it's an even better read for public relations and marketing executives who study image and perception. The greatest generation clearly earned its moniker. Today's sorry lot should be called the slacker generation.
I’ll defer to you on the Gage trivia, Julie. As for WWII stars, I’m sure there were a few who pitched in solely because it would be bad PR to do otherwise. But, Yellin’s book contains countless stories of heroism by the silver screen stars of the day. Somehow, I just can’t picture Rachel McAdams, Gwenth Paltrow or Jennifer Lopez putting themselves in harm’s way (much less washing the dirty dishes of our troops).
First, Lady Gaga would most definitely roll up her sleeves and scrub floors for the troops. She’s a lovely, giving person. In fact, when she performed at the Today Show, she found out that some fans had slept there overnight to get seats, so she made sure to buy them all pizza and coffee to keep them warm. What other A-list star cares about their fans waiting all night for tix?
Regarding celeb involvement in WW2 – I don’t think all of their motives were as noble as you may think. Remember, it was a unanimously popular war — we were all out to rid the world of Hitler — so NOT participating would have been bad PR and devasting to their image at home.
Thanks so much, Robin. I never thought about the impact WWI must have had on French and English women. It must have been especially brutal for the French since virtually the entire war was fought in their country.
Hi RepMan – great blog entry! I love reading about the women’s movement and women’s roles in important historical developments, and I would like to add that in England and France this “movement” really started during World War I. Women there had to take over the farms and factories in the UK and France as millions and millions of their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers died in the trenches. The main difference with WWI is that most women lost their jobs and went back to the farm or the home when the men who could do those jobs did return. It was a very difficult transition for many of them, and for many of the men, too – so many were shellshocked and badly wounded, and any kind of “after-care” for veterans was sadly lacking at that time.
History is fascinating wherever we find it. Thank you for bringing up this intriguing period!
My pleasure, Emily. Your book provided a whole new perspective on a subject I thought I knew all there was to know.
A valid point, PEngelinNYC. But, who needs to be asked? During WWII, Hollywood’s elite felt left out if they weren’t actively performing and/or serving in frontline combat.
It was definitely a different war and a different era. Some stars still do perform for troops today. And I am sure it has its challenges for them. But the fact that women are now in the military (even though they still aren’t technically allowed in combat) must make the atmosphere a little different (and perhaps better) for the female performers today than it was in WWII.
Steve is right that the image of women in WWII was heavily manipulated for the sake of the war effort. Betty Grable was the highest-paid woman in the US at the time, which says something about the things that were valued most in women back then. Plus, there was racial segregation in all parts of the military. So Lena Horne was the only acceptable pin-up for African-American troops. There is good and bad in both eras.
It would be harder for the government to control the image of women today. And I think that is a good thing. But the common purpose and sense of mission that everyone felt in WWII has never been duplicated in the wars that have come after.
Interesting stuff. Thanks Steve.
Yes, many “stars” are narcissistic, but it’s not entirely fair to blame the entertainment industry for not sharing time or putting themselves at risk with troops in Afghanistan.
It’s the role of government to set the tone in a war effort. During World War II, Americans received rations of gas, rubber and meat. We were encouraged to donate metal and bacon fat (for munitions) and grow victory gardens.
Today, government wants to keep these conflicts invisible. Except for those who have loved ones serving, what have Americans been asked to do in support of the troops? Bush asked us to uh….go shopping. Obama has said nothing.
From what I know of Lady Gaga, I agree with Julie. And maybe she’s not being asked.
I’ll defer to your judgment, Julie. But, I was dazzled when I read about such stars as Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn not only performing for troops but also serving them hot coffee and food, and then CLEANING their pots and pans afterwards. Sorry, but I can’t envision Gaga rolling up her sleeves and washing troops’ soiled silverware, plates and glasses.
Yes, RepMan, had Lady Gaga lived during WW2, she would have definitely gone overseas to entertain the troops. She is a loving, compassionate woman who genuinely cares about her fans. Please do not put her in the same sentence with self-serving, self-destructive celebrities like Lindsay Lohan — there’s no comparison.