Public Backlash Against the WAAC
Unfortunately, a variety of social factors had combined to produce a negative public image of the female soldier. Letters home from enlisted men contained a great deal of criticism of female soldiers. When the Office of Censorship ran a sample tabulation, it discovered that 84 percent of soldiers' letters mentioning the WAAC were unfavorable.
Many of these soldiers had never seen a WAAC. But they were away from home and facing unknown dangers, and many kept up their spirits by imagining their return to the family and community they had left behind. It was important that the family and community remain unchanged. Women in the military represented change.
Enlisted soldiers tended to question the moral values of any woman attracted to military service and passed these beliefs on to their families at home. Many soldiers believed that the WAACs' duties included keeping up morale and "keeping the men happy." To this end, contraceptives were supposedly issued to all WAACs, and large numbers of pregnant WAACs were being returned home from overseas. It was rumored that 90 percent of the WAACs were prostitutes and that 40 percent of all WAACs were pregnant. According to one story, any soldier seen dating a WAAC would be seized by Army authorities and provided with medical treatment.
Given this "traditional male folklore," the early WAAC slogan, "Release a Man for Combat," was an unfortunate choice. Due to supposed sexual overtones, the slogan was changed to "Replace a Man for Combat," but the modification made little difference. Concerned soldiers believed that WAACs were not fit company for their sisters and girlfriends, and many forbade their wives, fiancees, and sisters to join the WAAC, some even threatening divorce or disinheritance. After American servicemen saw WAACs on the job and worked with them, many changed their minds. But by then the damage had already been done.
Another source of adverse public opinion regarding the WAAC took root in cities and towns adjoining military bases. Scurrilous rumors were sometimes started by jealous civilian workers who feared that their jobs were endangered by the arrival of WAACs, or by townspeople annoyed at WAACs who came to town in groups and "took over" favorite restaurants and beauty shops. The growth of many Army posts during this period changed many small communities forever, and the presence of women in uniform for the first time typified these changes.
The most significant cause of anti-WAAC feelings originated with the many enlisted soldiers who, comfortable in their stateside jobs, did not necessarily want to be "freed" for combat. The mothers, wives, sisters, and fiancees of these men were not anxious to see them sent into combat either, and many people believed the WAACs were to blame for this possibility. Such people often found it convenient to believe the worst rumors about female soldiers and sometimes repeated such gossip to their friends and neighbors.
In general, the American press had reported favorably, if rather frivolously, on the WAAC. Although editors devoted an inordinate amount of space to the color of WAAC underwear and the dating question, the press was usually sympathetic to the adjustments made by women to military life and the exciting job and travel opportunities awaiting those who enlisted.
However, there were exceptions. In the well-known column, "Capitol Stuff," carried nationwide by the McCormick newspaper chain, columnist John O'Donnell claimed that a "super-secret War Department policy authorized the issuance of prophylactics to all WAACs before they were sent overseas." O'Donnell insisted that WAAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby was fully aware of and in agreement with this policy. The entire charge was, of course, a fabrication, and O'Donnell was forced to retract his allegation.
The damage done to the WAAC by this column, even with the rapid retraction, was incalculable. WAACs and their relatives were outraged and humiliated. The immediate denials issued by President and Mrs. Roosevelt, Secretary Stimson, and Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell of the Army Service Forces mitigated the feelings of some but did little to alleviate the shock of many. The inevitable general public discussion led Congress to summon Director Hobby to produce statistics on WAAC pregnancies and the frequency of venereal disease. Upon learning of the exceptionally small percent cited, Congress commended Major Hobby and the WAAC.
- Do women still experience this kind of backlash today? How so?
- What would be different today compared to during WWII?