- West Virginia Women in World War II: The Role of Gender, Class, and Race in Shaping Wartime Volunteer Efforts
During World War II, women in West Virginia volunteered their time, energy, and skills to serve in the war effort. In some cases, including all branches of the military, women were paid for their volunteer labor. In other cases, women in professional positions before the war simply expanded their duties to encompass wartime demands and civilian defense initiatives. While they continued to draw a salary, these college professors, teachers, and librarians, among others, were seldom compensated for their added hours or efforts. Still other women volunteered for labor that did not pay; they served as civilian defense coordinators, participated in local preparedness efforts, and oversaw salvage collection programs. Whether for paid or unpaid work, at the core of almost all volunteer recruitment among women in West Virginia were existing women’s organizations, such as women’s clubs, professional associations, and home economic extension services. These long-established networks of communication and organization among women responded to volunteer recruitment efforts during World War II.
Little has been written about the women of West Virginia and their activities during World War II, and what has been written reflects the broader historiographical focus on women in industrial production. More scholarship has been done on the work of women in West Virginia, generally, and without a World War II focus. A significant theme highlighting the history of women and work in West Virginia is the recognition of women’s unpaid labor and their unpaid contributions to the West Virginia economy. This is not unusual, as women’s history tends to emphasize the significance of unpaid labor and social reform or volunteer efforts. Since most women lived in rural areas and most were not employed in wage-paying positions outside the home or beyond the farm, a consideration of the unpaid labor and volunteer work of women may be a particularly essential component of women’s history in West Virginia.1 While volunteer activities of middle-class [End Page 27] white women and resistance to their full participation in the war effort receive more attention, African American women and less affluent white women in West Virginia also volunteered, acquired training, and sought to express their patriotism in a variety of ways as paid and unpaid volunteers. At the same time, there is evidence of racial barriers to African American participation and frustrated efforts to create communities united across race, class, and gender divisions in support of the total war mentality promoted by Washington.
This article relies heavily on the War History Commission Papers located in the West Virginia and Regional History Collection at West Virginia University. The collection documents the activities of the West Virginia State Office of Civilian Defense, most significantly through the correspondence of local, regional, and state officials, which helps to identify federal mandates and to note their effect in specific West Virginia communities. Particularly significant were federal concerns to incorporate women and African Americans into civilian defense initiatives and local efforts to comply. The collection also includes numerous issues of the West Virginia State Nursing Association’s newsletter, Weather Vane, which documents the military and civilian activities of West Virginia’s nurses during World War II. While it is a strong collection, the War History Commission Papers do not represent a complete record of West Virginia women’s volunteer efforts or non-industrial labor during World War II. When possible, additional sources, such as oral history interviews, personal manuscript collections, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History’s West Virginia Memory Project database, and other materials have been consulted. This article is not comprehensive, but suggests numerous directions for more in-depth research and evaluation of the accomplishments and activities of West Virginia’s women during World War II.
During World War II, nurses volunteered for military services in unprecedented numbers and those nurses who served abroad during the war saw the most hazardous duty. In fact, “of the 242,500 active professional nurses in the United States 42.9 per cent, or 103,869, volunteered and were certified for service by the Army and Navy.”2 In 1939...