She’s walking purposefully up the sidewalk carrying only a small purse, which matches her smart but flattering dress suit that she made last winter. Her hair is shining neatly under a perfectly pinned hat. She calls a friendly but cordial hello to a neighbor at the perfect volume, and the neighbor replies with a “and a good evening to you, Miss Lee.” She’s home from a hard but rewarding day at work, heading to the simple white ceramic enamel of her small but efficient kitchen. This is who I want to be when I grow up. When I grow up to be a character in a movie in 1940, that is.
A colleague recommended the film Swing Shift (1984) when I mentioned my interest in the era of women newly taking the reigns in factories and offices. Goldie Hawn is at her cutest as a military wife who rises to the patriotic call of duty to build bombers for the war effort. The cast is fantastic (Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, Christine Lahti, and of course Kurt Russell to balance Goldie) and the movie is a very interesting glimpse into 1940, 1980s-style.
It seems to me that there is a distinct difference between women in movies of the 1940s and women in movies about the 1940s. To contrast, I borrowed a true 1940 movie from the OWL Box:
The More the Merrier. I brought this movie with me on my last visit to see my grandmother. Grandma said, dryly, “This would have been hilarious back then” at a corny slapstick sketch of a man losing a coffee pot in the sleeve of his bathrobe and then spilling it into the tub. I thought perhaps she and I were on the same page then, looking into the past together. But by the end of the movie I was as lost as if watching a foreign film, while Grandma seemed perfectly pleased, taking the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” theme with her to the kitchen.
I have an impression that the women of that time were empowered and excited by the opportunity to build bombers and take on the war effort. Factories saw an increase in production, and over 150,000 women signed up for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. These are statistics though. I love being able to study history through the true stories of real people.
This book is truly illuminating and reaches areas of history that most of us probably never came across in our text books, including chapters on Japanese-American women, African-American women, and even a chapter on The “Wrong Kind” of Women.
Cultural History of the United States Through the Decades: the 1940s by Michale V. Uschan is a simple history book intended for young readers, but I found it a very helpful place to start. Though some of the more disturbing realities of history are neatened and clipped for the purposes of fifth grade reports, but it is informative and interesting all the same. It even includes a section on “Forties Slang.”
This is a series of very short stories by Mary Jo Clark, as told to her son. They are told in such a way that I can easily picture the teller at her kitchen sink, not slowing down her daily work to dress up her stories- just telling it like it is. It’s amazing what history books can forget in countless chapters that a passing thought of someone who lived it can color in so vibrantly. There are stories of lost children, sickness, marriage, death, and an almost constant search for a home. No matter what the story, though, the endings seem almost flippantly wise- “That’s just the way it was back then. Anyway, that’s how I met your father.”
The Women Who Wrote the War by Nancy Caldwell Sorel This book is a collection of the incredible stories of women war correspondents during the second world war. I find their stories and their unapologetically graceful way of telling them inspiring.
One chapter begins with this quote “At about 4 a.m. on June 6 my military friend rang to say, ‘Take the curlers out of your hair and get going,'” Mary Welsh wrote later. “I had no curlers in my hair but I got going.” There was no room for waste, especially not time to waste arguing with people about their attitudes or sexist comments.
I have to admit that some of the aspects of technology and modern comforts are for the best, and as much as I envy the slim figures, I’m glad to not be counting out ration points at the grocery store. The more I learn, the prouder I am of my foremothers and the amazing feats they acheived.
Miriam Lee is the Technical Services Assistant at Oliver Wolcott Library, and is currently shopping for a new hat and practicing her trans-Atlantic accent.