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During World War II, with men overseas, women dominated U-M as they never had before — and would not again until the '70s.
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Michigan women at war
During World War II, with men overseas, women dominated U-M as they never had before—and would not again until the '70s.
November 18, 2008
One night in mid-December 1941, a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, some six thousand students pressed into Hill Auditorium for an all-campus assembly. Hushed and somber, they heard U-M president Alexander Ruthven speak of the grave need for sacrifice in the nation's defense. They heard Murray Van Wagoner, governor of Michigan, echo Ruthven's call to service. Every young man in the crowd was already registered for the draft, and everyone knew that few of them would remain on the campus for long.
Then the audience listened as Alice Crocker Lloyd, U-M's dean of women since 1930, a feminist and fierce proponent of co-education, said that women, too, must step up in the crisis.
"It is no longer true that though the men can rush out and enlist," Dean Lloyd declared, "the women have to take a passive part."
It was a prophetic moment. Over the next four years, women would assume a prominence on campus they had never enjoyed before and would not know again until the 1970s. They led organizations that men had always led; filled campus jobs left empty by draftees; and gave thousands of hours to war-related volunteering. People spoke now not so much of B.M.O.C.s—Big Men on Campus—but of B.W.O.C.s.
It took some months for wartime to become "the new normal" on campus. But by the fall of 1943—the beginning of the second full academic year since Pearl Harbor—"the University [had] assumed a definite wartime complexion," as the Daily noted.
Classrooms were now full year-round, as students preparing for specialized war work strove to gain their degrees fast and join up. Many peacetime courses had been dropped in favor of war-oriented classes in science and technology. Intercollegiate sports were staggering under the manpower shortage. The prewar social schedule of fraternity parties and big-band dances at the Union had vanished. In the fall of 1942 there had been more than 40 active fraternities; now there were only nine.
There were plenty of men on campus, but most were short-time transients in uniform—Army Air Force men studying meteorology; Navy men taking courses ranging from electronics to gun design; lawyers joining the Army's Judge Advocate General corps; Japanese-language trainees double-bunking in East Quad; soldier-scholars preparing to run postwar governments in Western Europe and Japan—and they had little time for the extracurricular activities of peacetime.
Women stepped into this void.
For many years, women's activities on campus had been coordinated by the all-women's Michigan League, counterpart to the all-male Michigan Union. Each year the League ran all-female class projects such as the Sophomore Cabaret, the Junior Girls' Play and the Senior Supper. Now the League Council changed its name to the Women's War Council, and the old class projects were converted to war. Freshman women hosted open houses for the military men on campus. Sophomore volunteers filled empty slots at University and St. Joseph's Mercy Hospitals. Junior "Bond Belles" filled war bond orders from faculty and staff. Seniors armed themselves with needles and thread to help answer Washington’s call for millions of surgical dressings. Smaller projects popped up all over campus. Helen Newberry residents were urged to turn over lipsticks and compacts to scrap drives. Harris Hall, the Episcopalian student center at the corner of State and Huron, was converted and staffed for USO parties. Women filled vacant jobs in the University laundry, waited on tables in the all-male preserve of the Union, pulled weeds, raked leaves.
These changes were largely still matters of women performing in traditional women's roles, as helpmates to men. More subversive of the old sexual order were the women who stepped into leadership roles traditionally assumed by men. This happened among the officers of classes and committees and most notably among the student publications. In 1942, women were named to the editorships of the Ensian and the Gargoyle, and in 1943, the slate of new editors of the Daily, led by a Floridian named Marion Ford, was made up of women.
Pitching in for the war effort was hardly unanimous. Indeed, the number of "shirkers" must have been large, since the steadiest and sternest refrain in the channels of campus publicity was that too many women were spurning their obligations in the crisis.
That theme reached its peak in a blistering editorial by Mavis Kennedy, a Daily editor in the fall of 1943, when American G.I.s were slogging north through Italy against terrible German resistance. Kennedy's harangue—as much an attack on traditional women's roles as on the shortage of war spirit—was triggered by a survey of some 250 residents of Stockwell Hall, 118 of whom conceded they were "doing nothing but going to classes, and studying now and then." These women were "representative of hundreds of other University women who are failing to do their part," wrote Kennedy, who resorted to capitals and italics to make her central points:
THE REAL REASON WHY UNIVERSITY WOMEN ARE SHIRKING RESPONSIBILITY IS THAT THEY ARE TOO STEEPED IN NOSTALGIC LONGING FOR THE GOOD OLD DAYS TO REALIZE THAT THEY ARE LETTING THEIR COUNTRY AND THEIR COLLEGE DOWN.
They spend hours in bull-sessions talking about the days when a coed's biggest worry was about her dress for this week's ball, whether or not the letter-man in chem lab was going to date her, and if a particular sorority was going to give her a bid—days when Guadalcanal, Mindanao, and the Aleutians were just names on a map that had to be learned the night before a Geography final…
It took a war to swing colleges into the world of the living. Unless the parasitic females of the university wake up to their responsibility and see that each one has a job that no one else can do, then peace time will mean the return of the stagnant lethargy of the good old days. And the 118 can crawl back into their ivory towers.
Even if a majority of U-M women did "do their bit" for the war effort, that was probably less important to the history of women at the University than a movement taking place more or less invisibly, in classrooms and laboratories across the campus.
On the first day of class in 1941, 3,297 women were enrolled. Four years later, with the war over, that number was 5,438. Dean Lloyd attributed the increase to several factors. More families had money to spend on their daughters' education because their sons were at war. With few men available for hiring, more companies and institutions were seeking women with college training, which enhanced the argument for women going to college. And because many companies had paid women good money to do war work, more of these women, most of them older than traditional coeds just out of high school, had their own money for education.
In the autumn of 1945, after the signing of the peace treaties and the return of the men to the nation's campuses, Dean Lloyd praised the women of the war years and declared that "college women should not now lose a feeling of the importance of their responsibilities toward the community and toward the nation." Traditional roles reasserted themselves for a time. But a corner had been turned, and in the decades to come, the daughters of the World War II generation would answer Dean Lloyd's challenge.
is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.