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Rosie's new role: World War II redefined women's work

March 6, 2006
By Anita Martin

Alice Mechem Drach, BSED '42, was listening to the radio on Dec. 7, 1941, in the living room of the Pi Beta Phi house on College Street when she heard the news of Pearl Harbor's attack.

The details

What: Panel discussion on women's roles during WWII
When: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9
Where: Walter Hall 145
"We always had boys as waiters," Drach says, "and they all said: 'We're going.' And my goodness, they did. They just flowed out of the university."

By 1943, only 236 men were enrolled in the university, down from 2,047 just three years earlier. In early 1941, The Ohio Alumnus created a new section: "Ohio University men make contribution to Uncle Sam's widespread war efforts." By 1942, the section became more inclusive, telling more than just the men's half of the story.

"Scholars argue that women, more than any other group, experienced change during World War II," says Associate Professor of History Katherine Jellison. Some 6.5 million women entered the paid civilian workforce, often with so-called men's jobs, over the course of the war. "This also marks the first permanent presence of women in the U.S. military."

To recognize their efforts and in observance of Women's History Month, Jellison will moderate a panel discussion, "Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women Tell Their Stories of World War II," from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, March 9, in Walter Hall 145.

Panelists will include:

  • Drach, who served in a branch of the Navy for women
  • Jo Johnson, who was active on the Athens homefront and now volunteers with the Athens Historical Society
  • Ann Holden, an acquaintance of Eleanor Roosevelt and former assistant to President Emeritus Vernon Alden
  • Madeleine Poston, a prisoner of the Japanese during the war
  • Mary Morgan, a former Athens resident who worked at the experimental aircraft lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton.

In the Navy

Rosie the Riveter poster"After the attack on Pearl Harbor, I don't remember anyone who didn't want to do something," Drach says. "You saw all the posters and ads saying 'We need you.' Some women had families, so it fell to those unmarried women who hadn't established a career. I was in a perfect position to (enlist)."

After graduation, Drach entered WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. She trained at Hunter College in New York City and moved to Providence, R.I., where she administered the base gunnery office at the Quonset Point Naval Air Station.

Though the WAVES name suggests a temporary, wartime addition, they were supervised by the U.S. military's first commissioned female naval officers, and women have since remained a permanent part of the United States military.

More than 150,000 American women served in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. WAC members were the first women, aside from nurses, to serve within the ranks of the United States Army. WAC recruitment posters boasted "239 kinds of jobs for women," from radio operators and cryptographic code clerks to draftsmen, interpreters and airplane mechanics.

Working around the clock

Back at home, Johnson patrolled Lancaster Street with a pair of binoculars.

"I was an air raid warden," Johnson says with a laugh. "I don't think I could do now what I did then. I might not even recognize an airplane."

Johnson worked for McBee Co., a printing company that patented the Keysort punch card system used as a database by every branch of the U.S. military as well as many businesses and hospitals.

"McBee was one of Ohio's biggest employers, and they worked directly for the military," Johnson says. "Every night there were armed guards on all three shifts at McBee."

Among her duties, Johnson oversaw inter-office sales of military bonds and was responsible for hiring all female employees. As labor demand increased, many women discovered hidden skills.

"You said 'accounting' to the girls and they'd (sigh)," Johnson says, throwing her hands up to mimic the women's reaction. "They all wanted filing jobs." Instead, many women ran punch machines alongside men.

When she wasn't working, Johnson helped form the Marine, Army and Navy club, an organization that gathered donations of fruit, cookies and magazines for soldiers passing through the Athens railroad station.

Move along, Ma'am

"After the war, the same propaganda that told women to go out and serve turned the other direction," Jellison says. "You know: 'It's time for you to go home and open jobs for returning men. Go make happy homes and strong families for the men to return to.'"

Even so, 75 percent of women remained in the workplace, albeit in jobs with lower pay and status.

"Even after (the war), it seemed that married women were working more, which was always controversial," Drach says. "The war changed a lot of things and that was one of them. I think a lot of women liked the idea of bringing home a paycheck."

Johnson believes women's involvement in World War II helped inspire subsequent liberation movements of the 20th century.

"Women were recognized," she says, "and they realized they were more capable than people thought they were."

Anita Martin is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.

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