The following is a Question & Answer interview with Emily Yellin.
What role does your own mother play in this book?
How does she fit into the story?
My motherís war experiences are what brought me to this subject and the book starts and ends with her. After my mother died in 1999, I found this amazing collection of letters she had written home to her parents at least once a week during all the years of World War II. I spent an entire month reading through her writings, getting to know her during a time before she was my mom, when she was a young woman finding her way in a world that was turning upside down. It was fascinating and I realized that I had never really asked her much about her war years. As was the case in most families, my fatherís war stories were the ones that got the most play at the dinner table and in our living room discussions. It dawned on me that as a journalist, I had an opportunity to give voice to women of my motherís generation, so that their daughters and sons and grandchildren could get to know them in the same new way I was learning about my own mother. So my motherís life became the window through which I first viewed World War II women. Her letters, the voice of someone from that generation that I knew so well, gave me the foothold, and I use them as an anchor for the narrative.
What was the significance of the World War II years for women?
It was an absolutely pivotal time when women stepped up and contributed to society in ways that went beyond any public roles they had ever filled in our history before. Women joined the work force in record numbers. Women joined the military for the first time in American history. Women began to have a voice in politics and entered the professions like never before. So many limits on women were set aside. The idea was for these changes to be temporary and that women would go back to their primary roles in the home as soon as the war was over. And in many ways, that did happen. But the more I researched this book, the more clear it became that seeds were planted during World War II that would later result in the womenís liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
What are some of the unexpected jobs American women held during World War II?
Most jobs ś beyond housewives, mothers, and domestic and service workers ś were unexpected for women at that time, so the fact that this generation of women went to the factories and the military and elected office and the professions was all unexpected. The work that surprises many people is the women who were military pilots, who worked as spies, and who were professional baseball players. I liked the idea that women musicians got new opportunities to prove themselves during the war. There is a great story of the women who took the place of men who had gone to war in jazz bands around the country. No other musicians before had faced the complications of blowing a saxophone or playing the drums in high heels and strapless gowns. So many times as I wrote about the women of this generation, I was reminded of the famous line about how when Ginger Rogers danced with Fred Astaire she had to do all the same steps as he did, but she had to do them backwards and in heels. The women of World War II lived out that metaphor many times over.
How do the women of the World War II era compare to women today?
The parallels between the main concerns of women today and the primary concerns of women in World War II are stunning: so many of the conflicts women and men are wrestling with today had their roots in WWII. Women were striving to balance work and family, facing pay inequities and sexual harassment, seizing unprecedented professional opportunities, enjoying newfound pride in making their own money, and being taken seriously in public arenas such as politics and law and journalism for the first time. During World War II, women pioneered against widespread resistance to their presence in the military, and were caught in a web of sexual double standards conveyed through the media. There were single mothers. Women faced glass ceilings. And women began to wrestle with issues of gay rights, race and gender quotas, and the availability of quality daycare during World War II like never before.
What did you find most surprising about the women of this era?
Initially, I was surprised at how much more women did during World War II than I had ever known. Many people have heard of Rosie the Riveter and the women left behind sending their husbands, sons, and brothers off to war. But as I looked more closely, I saw so much more in the women of that time. In fact, instead of being the women left behind, I would say these women were the women who led the way toward a society in which half of the population finally got real opportunities to participate and contribute their talents to the greater good of their country. Also, I started to see a theme ś that became clearer and clearer as I got into the book ś of women facing down slights, insults and outright rejection with a grace and determination that I am not sure I would have understood before. Again, my mother was my guide. When she was dying of cancer I saw that so clearly in her, and I came to see it in just about all the women of her generation about whom I wrote.
How do the women you write about feel about their impact on the war effort?
Almost to a woman, the women I interviewed and the women I researched and included in the book would say that they did not do very much, that it was the men who did the really heroic things. They werenít just being falsely humble. There was a general consensus at the time that women were not the main operatives in the war effort, but were the supporting players. I started to take a different view as I spoke to and read about more and more women and saw the quieter heroism and courage they had to muster to endure the war. That was what was really fun about this book. I was able to see these women in a different light, and I was able to see their significance to the big picture more clearly than many of them were able to themselves.
Were there any women you wrote about who you did not admire?
For the most part, I found the women I wrote about inspiring. But yes, there were a few who were not quite so admirable. The most obvious ones were the women who formed the so-called mothersí groups, which were actually a front for some of the most vicious hateful propaganda against Jewish people in America, as well as black people and anyone not like them. A few of them were tried for sedition in 1944 for working against the Allied cause. But none was ever convicted. These women were not the kind of people I would want as friends or neighbors, but their stories were compelling nonetheless.
Is this book written for women?
When I first started writing this book, I did think I would mainly be writing this for all the other daughters to learn for the first time, as I did, about their mothersí war years. But my brother corrected me on that. He said that she was his mother too and he would be just as interested to understand what she went through as I would. That is when I became committed to the idea that this would be a book that men as well as women would find accessible. After all, I grew up learning the significance of our fatherís war years and I have only been enriched by considering with the same gravity the impact of the war on our mothers.
Do you have a favorite person you write about in the book?
Thatís easy: my mother, of course. But beyond that I would be hard-pressed to answer. One of the joys I found in writing this book probably had to do with coming at it as a journalist instead of as a historian. There was such a wealth of information and so many women to consider. What I left out was often so interesting and significant too. But as much as possible I went with the most telling stories I could find. I tried to be comprehensive. That is the nature of such a book. But I wanted this to be a book people read out of interest, not obligation. So I followed my instinct in using the most compelling stories I could. To answer the question more directly, I would have to point to the story of Wonder Woman. She was created during World War II by a male psychologist who was a consultant to DC Comics and wrote for Ladiesí Home Journal. He created her because he felt that there were not enough good role models for little girls in the media. Wonder Woman fought the Nazi menace along with Superman, Batman, the Green Lantern and the rest. She was the first woman allowed into the DC Comics Justice League. And even though her superpowers were greater than most of her male superhero counterparts, she was only allowed to be the secretary of the group, not a full member. But she persevered without complaint, letting her actions speak for her. So I would say that Wonder Woman was one of my favorite characters, since she embodied a kind of template for the superheroics I saw in most all the women I wrote about in the book.
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