Victory Girls

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Marilyn E. Hagarty. Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality during World War II. New York: New York University Press, 2008. ISBN 13: 978-0-8147-3704-0, Cloth; 10:0-8147-3704-8, cloth.


Sex is complicated and Marilyn Hegarty’s Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes illustrates just how complicated America’s attitudes towards sex were during World War II. Hegarty’s work on gender and race highlights the paradox that existed for women and men regarding female sexuality during World War II. Governmental and social agencies took a proactive stance at the outset of the war and sought to contain the spread of venereal diseases by discouraging extra-marital sex, but at the same time these same groups encouraged the use of female sexuality to support the war effort and raise the morale of the troops. A physician at the United States Public Health Service coined the term patriotute, intended as a pejorative, to refer to women whom were both patriots and prostitutes. This story is part of the larger narrative of deviations of gender roles created by the War. Along with the women who went to work in factories and shipyards, all women faced changing attitudes in what was expected of them with regards to sexual mores.

Experiences from World War I and the easing of restrictions on women during the 1920s caused the state to prepare for the expected rise in prostitution caused by many men being away from home. The government took an active part in attempting to control prostitution in order to protect soldiers from illness caused by venereal disease. Official posters and articles suggested that prostitution was a major wartime threat. Concerns about prostitutes were such that the use of the term grew to encompass all single women who found themselves in circumstances that could be considered sexually compromising including even such seemingly benign acts as having drinks with a soldier. At the same time the war created many more opportunities for single women to be in social situations with soldiers and they were indeed encouraged to serve as hostesses at USO and other venues to do their part in the war effort.

Women suspected of prostitution were arrested on morals charges and after local jails were filled were often sent to former Civilian Conservation Corps Camps that were acquired specifically for this purpose. However, a double standard existed as men were only warned to stay away from women of loose morals, professional or not, and were not usually arrested or censured. They were expected to take heed of posters proclaiming messages such as “men who know say no to prostitutes spreaders of syphilis and gonorrhea.”

The military’s stand on prostitution was further complicated by their belief that servicemen needed sex. There were separate campaigns that targeted African-Americans specifically who often did not have equal access to public health information. The belief that syphilis was a completely different disease in whites and blacks was a carryover from the Tuskegee study of 1932 that examined almost 400 black men who had the disease but were told only that they had “bad blood.” African-American women around military bases received especially harsh treatment if they were suspected of interacting with military personnel.

Gwen White, Spring 2010

Most of Hegarty’s findings about the conflicted treatment of women during World War II coincide with those of Elaine Tyler May as expressed in her essay, "Rosie the River gets Married," in The War in American Culture. May provides a slightly more optimistic assessment of the opportunities that the war gave young women including moving away from home and forming new communities as well as increased sexual freedom. However, she also notes that single women faced unequal pay and usually lost the jobs they held once the war was over at the same that they were viewed as a threat to established gender roles.

Hegarty’s study encompasses popular magazines as well as journals directed toward the health care community and her coverage of print media is the most convincing part of her argument. Women received conflicting messages that encouraged them to “be his pin-up girl!” and on the following page find a warning about the ease with which venereal diseases could be contracted. Married women were urged to maintain their sexual allure at the same time that they symbolized “the good women who theoretically maintained the boundaries of respectability (p. 124).”

One type of evidence that would have perhaps added a more balanced view to the issue is oral histories of women from the era to see what their experiences were. For the most part the evidence that is presented is official data and the inclusion of personal stories could provide a more granular look at the women’s experiences.

Hegarty does a thorough job of integrating the story of how women have been viewed through previous wars and the years between World Wars I and II. In the conclusion, Hegarty suggests that the 1950s focus on family and domesticity was a reaction to the freewheeling sexuality and disruption of traditional gender roles during the 1940s. This is a tantalizing thesis but she does not do any more than raise the issue and provides no evidence to support this thesis. Overall this is a well-researched treatment of a troubling period for men and women both black and white.

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