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Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 25.1 (2004) 190-211

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"To Make the Boys Feel at Home"

USO Senior Hostesses and Gendered Citizenship

In 1943, Helen Scheidel and her sister, Marge, attended USO dances at Mayor Kelly's Servicemen's Center in Chicago, once a month on Saturday nights. As a single eighteen-year-old, Helen represented the typical junior hostess, famous for jitterbugging across the dance floor with fresh-faced soldiers and sailors. Helen and the other junior hostesses at the center "tried to not let someone sit by themselves" and eagerly listened to servicemen's stories about their homes and families. When a soldier or a sailor seemed especially anxious or distraught, however, Helen recalls that she and her peers were "not mature enough to talk about their problems" with them. What they needed in this instance was someone who was there "to take Mama's place." Helen and Marge referred these "boys" to senior hostesses, because they were there "to do serious talking." Although mending shirts, baking cookies, and "listening" were hardly revolutionary undertakings for middle-class women in the early 1940s in the same way that working in factories or joining the Women's Army Corps were, USO senior hostesses transformed these activities ordinarily performed daily at home into a public fulfillment of their obligations to the wartime state.1

Senior hostesses, usually married women over the age of thirty-five, clocked hundreds of thousands of hours at the USO, where they not only served as informal counselors, but also sewed insignias on servicemen's uniforms, baked sweets and made sandwiches, and chaperoned male soldiers' and sailors' interactions with junior hostesses. Their activities did not threaten the patriarchal order or existing gender or sexual norms; however, women's domestic work and their emotional labor in USO clubs were important. In her assessment of the modern welfare state, political scientist Laura Balbo details the invisibility, yet necessity, of women's unpaid "emotion work," such as cooking, "counseling," and "mothering," in upholding a capitalistic society. Sociologist Arlie R. Hochschild takes the idea of "emotional labor" into the public sphere to argue that feminized service professions require women to "feign" happiness [End Page 190] and enthusiasm in order to perform their duties successfully. Similarly, senior hostesses engaged in emotion work by censoring their feelings while working in USO clubs to shield the servicemen in their care from anxiety created by the war. They donated their domestic and emotional labor to the military and the wartime state for personal and patriotic reasons. In doing so, they performed private tasks, previously reserved for their families, for strangers in a public setting.2

While the Great Depression magnified the importance of women's domestic skills for a short time by highlighting their ability to tighten the household budget, women's household labor regularly went unnoticed unless it was absent. Historians have given female volunteers, senior hostesses in particular, much the same treatment. Senior hostesses completed work for servicemen and women in USO clubs that women had always done, and this helped to erase its historical significance. For example, historian D'Ann Campbell concludes that women's volunteer work for the USO and the Red Cross did little to affect the prosecution of the war. Instead, their volunteer efforts served to make elite and middle-class women feel good about answering the government's call for women's wartime support. Campbell more thoroughly discusses women's volunteer work for the Red Cross than she does for the USO, and this might have prompted her to conclude that senior hostesses' work had little real value. Furthermore, when the USO does creep into popular memory, it is junior hostesses like Marge and Helen Scheidel who seem to represent the organization, not their older, married counterparts who kept the clubs functioning throughout the war.3

Senior hostesses reinforced their primary peacetime roles as mothers and caregivers, and made their services as such available to the military, thereby performing a gendered form of citizenship. According...