The romance of WWII?
A romantic image of whirlwind courtships and expectations of postwar domestic bliss permeate our understandings of the private side of wartime life during World War II. Iconic images of the World War II era are partly responsible: propaganda posters, films, and photographs, as well as soldiers’ own articulation that they fought for a return to the American Way of Life. And, of course, American public memory has been shaped by knowledge of what occurred in succeeding years, including record-high marriage rates, suburbanization, and the Baby Boom.
Yet this post-war reimagining of the early 1940s ignores the actual, widespread anxieties of the age, when government and society more broadly worried about the newfound freedoms women of the war effort encountered. Engaged in war work, entertaining soldiers, and often living on their own, many women, for the first time, lived a life far from surveillance of their families or home communities. If single women saw fit to behave like single men, as Elaine Tyler May reminds us, both the American family unit and the nation’s moral virtue could be at risk. Popular culture, educational materials, and government propaganda thus actively promoted the private joys of home and married life and reminded women of their responsibilities to “retain their femininity,” May explains, and prepare a domestic respite for the postwar years.
What impact did this turn in popular romance culture have on actual women’s lives? We find one answer, at least, in Studs Terkel’s now famous The Good War. When Terkel interviewed Dellie Hahne, he questioned her about life on the home front and the social context of the war years. Hahne, who wed a soldier during wartime, spoke directly to the social pressures young women felt to support the war effort through relationships they shared with soldiers.
Rather than romance, widespread expectations of friends, family, and broader American culture influenced the decisions Hahne made about her private life and personal relationships. “On all sides, the idea that women married soldiers and sent them overseas happy was hammered at us,” she noted. Radio dramas, short stories in magazines, and films reflected a “central theme” where “the girl meets the soldier and the very last scene, after a weekend of acquaintanceship, sometimes two or three hours, they married.” Often, stories would center on a minor drama that might prevent the union, most often preventative local laws or a soldier’s difficulty getting leave. Ultimately, however, the marriage would be sanctified, and the soldier would then head off to war.
Hahne’s real-life story shows the darker side of this pop-cultural consensus. As “life became a series of weekend dates,” Hahne met her future husband. She recalled, “I really didn’t care that much for him. He was just one of the crowd.” But as war introduced a woman to hundreds of men, “more in a month,” as Hahne noted, “than she would have [met] in her entire lifetime,” pressure escalated to choose one of these men and settle down. Hahne’s brother, who had introduced her to her future husband, reflected this pressure when he questioned his sister, “‘What do you mean you don’t like Glen? You’re going to marry him, aren’t you?’”
Hahne recalled that she was surprised by this point of view: “This was the first time it even ever occurred to me that I would even marry anybody. But the pressure to marry and marry a soldier was so great that after a while I didn’t even question it. I accepted it. I thought well, I have to marry some time or another. I might as well marry him.”
For Hahne, and for many other women, the disruption of wartime meant that “young single women were of tremendous importance,” and with “incredible excitement,” they realized that new jobs and experiences and relationships awaited them. And yet an undercurrent of traditional expectations remained, reminding them that fulfillment of their primary postwar duties would require them to return home. Hahne’s own return was short-lived. After seven years, she divorced her husband, “a totally irresponsible man,” and worked to raise her two children alone, proving that the wartime imaginings of domestic happiness often conflicted with women’s postwar realities.
Hariman, Robert and John Louis Lucaites. “The Times Square Kiss: Iconic Photography and Civic Renewal in US Public Culture,” Journal of American History 94 (June 2007): 122-32.
May, Elaine Tyler. “Rosie the Riveter Gets Married.” The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness during World War II. Ed. Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 128-43.
For audio of the Studs Terkel’s interview with Dellie Hahne and Sarah Killingsworth, visit studsterkel.org; quotations are from Part 1 of the interview. For the print version of his interviews, see Studs Terkel, The Good War: An Oral History of World War II (1984; New York: The New Press, 1997).
Karen Dunak is an assistant professor of history at Muskingum University, New Concord, OH, and author of an upcoming book on the evolution of the modern American wedding. The book is scheduled for a summer 2013 release by New York University Press. Find out more about Karen Dunak.