Women on the Home Front: The U.S. Women’s Army Corps During and After World War II

Thu, 01/25/24
Gabrielle Camp

My name is Gabrielle. I transferred from UMass Boston in my freshman year of college. When I reviewed the History program at FSU, I really liked what I saw. I had a wonderful teacher in 8th grade who made me fall in love with history, so I have been drawn to the subject ever since. I particularly enjoy the story-telling aspect of history.

What is your HITM project about?

My project is about the experiences of members of the U.S. Women’s Army Corps in World War II. Specifically, I am looking at how the environment that the WAC created acted as a community space for lesbian women in the war. In the postwar period, the WAC’s policing of its members shaped lesbian identities too, even for lesbians who were not in the WAC.

I first discovered this topic in high school, and I wrote a short paper. The word limit stopped me from getting into all the themes I wanted to write about. When I found out that I could research and write an undergraduate honors thesis, I jumped at the idea of continuing to work on the same topic.

I am arguing that the WAC unintentionally created a space that allowed lesbians to join the military comfortably. The WAC needed recruits very badly, so the military ignored the sexual orientation of their recruits. The WAC attracted women who sought to leave their immediate familial constraints behind, or were not married and did not have children. It took a certain type of woman to want to join the war effort so directly, so lesbians and women who were not sure of their sexuality were more likely to fit the bill.

But in the 1950s and 1960s, as the military did not need so many women in their ranks, they began to weed those women out. The previously safe space very quickly turned into a witch hunt, where women were forced to detail their relationships and faced dishonorable discharge. Social pressure more broadly was attempting to go back to pre-war gender norms of men as wage earners and women as housewives.

The lesbian communities in the WAC sought to be invisible within the military but wanted to be visible enough in civilian social spaces like bars to meet other lesbian women.

Furthermore, the dominant historical narrative affects the way we remember this version of community. The women whom historians interview about their experiences in the WAC, the experiences these women decide to share, and the information the US military chooses to make public all influence our interpretation of this history.

What sources are you working with?

The historiography is challenging. A lot of the literature on the women in the WAC was published in the 1980s and 1990s, when writing gay history was still in its infant stages. Many of these histories relied on oral history interviews. But not all the women, many of them then between 50 and 80 years old, felt comfortable talking about their experiences. Consequently, I had to work with a very limited pool of primary sources. It did not, for example, allow me to find out how race and class had shaped the women’s experiences, or how even earlier forms of lesbian community influenced the formation of community in the WAC.

I also had a hard time finding documents in the National Archives, as there are no specific finding aids for the topic. None of the records have been digitized. Because of that, I had to rely mainly on primary documents cited in the secondary literature, and I had to depend on them being accurately cited. I was unable to go to the National Archives in Maryland myself.

How did you choose your advisor?

When I was considering working on this topic, I was taking a class with Dr. Paul Renfro. I enjoyed the class, and I really liked the insight that he provided. I like getting substantial feedback on my work. Even if I get an A, I know that I can still improve my work, and I want to know how. I looked forward to receiving feedback from Dr. Renfro, because even when he said that a paper was very good, he would add suggestions about what else I could do. I knew he would be honest with me and help me work toward a stronger project.

Dr. Mooney, with whom I ended up taking my senior seminar, is also on my committee. She suggested sources to look at and, we discussed approaches to the paper. My outside committee member, Dr. Buggs, also offered a wealth of sources and a wonderful perspective. Together, they provided me with a very strong support system and helped me work toward the best version of this project.

Were you nervous about starting such a big project?

I felt confident at first, but about a month into the project, I suddenly thought, “What have I done?” I became frustrated when I could not find the documents that I knew were in the National Archives. I started doubting whether I would ever be able to write this paper.

Additionally, I had never written anything as long as this before. But having done the senior seminar the semester before was very helpful. I kept telling myself “It is just like writing two senior seminar theses.” While that was still scary to think about, I knew that it would be a difficult task but not an impossible one.

How do you stay on top of things?

I started by changing how I took notes. Every time I read a source that seemed useful to the project, I opened a google doc, and I wrote down all the quotes that could possibly assist me in any way. I did not do that at first, and I quickly realized that I had all these phantom memories of things that I had read - but I had no idea in which book to find them.

It is really important to keep as detailed a record of your reading as possible, because even if you initially think that something is not relevant, it might very well turn out to be very important later on.

Furthermore, I took the quotes and grouped them thematically – together with the thoughts that I had written down when I was reading the text. That has helped me write the different paragraphs and sections of the thesis. When I get stuck, I can go straight to my thematically grouped quotes and see what the sources are telling me.

How difficult is it to find a balance between working on your thesis and your other coursework?

Difficult. I am taking five classes in addition to the HITM, I am doing a senior seminar in my second major, Classics, and I am involved in community theatre. It has been challenging to find time for each of the different things I am doing right now. For a while, I prioritized the assignments for my other classes, but eventually, I had to sit down and start writing the HITM thesis. I used to just take my weekends to work on the thesis, but as I got closer to my defense deadline, I had to start working on the project every day. It has taken some getting used to, but I believe I have struck a balance.

Was it more stressful or fun?

The initial part was stressful. I was terrified of having to contact people I did not know to help me work on such a big project.

Deciding how much research I had to do before I could start writing was nerve-wracking too. I read so many books, and had gathered so many quotes, but I did not know how or when to start. But once I sat down to write the paper, I realized that it wasn’t that scary to do. In the span of two days, I had one third of the thesis done.

I was also stressed because I have a hard time translating all my thoughts onto a page in an organized fashion. I am always tempted to think in many different directions, to jump around with my thoughts. I had to control that when I wrote this thesis. I divided the thesis into three chapters, the general history of the WAC, how the women’s community developed, and how the way its history was recorded affects how we see the WAC today. That structure took the pressure off my concern about how to start. It gave me a roadmap forward.

How will having written an HITM thesis help you in the future?

It gave me a lot of experience in managing myself. It requires a level of self-discipline that the shorter papers I was used to writing do not. That has been an invaluable experience. It also requires a different skill set than the writing of a shorter paper. It showed me how to form my own opinions, draw my own conclusions based on primary and secondary sources, and how to work with myself.

I have enjoyed being able to sit down and read about this topic, as I had been curious about it for quite a while. This project gave me the opportunity to really dig deep and find out more, as well as how to review how people talked about this topic in the past. It has been very interesting to see how people have historically talked about queer spaces. What has changed and what stayed the same.

Lastly, writing the thesis has boosted my confidence. When I looked on my computer and saw that I had written 28 pages, I was thrilled to think, “I have never written anything this long before!” But even more exciting was the realization that I had more to say and more to write still. Writing the HITM thesis has made me feel more comfortable with myself as a researcher and a writer. Being able to go into a much greater level of detail than in regular papers has allowed me to find my voice.

What advice would you give to others who might be thinking about embarking on a HITM project?

Do it, if you have the time and something you are passionate about. You will learn how to manage yourself and your time. Plus writing a thesis of this length will give you a new kind of high, a writing high, as you get to delve into a topic in ways you have not previously been able to explore.

For me, doing the senior seminar first was important. It allowed me to dip my toes in the water. If I had had to move from writing ten-page papers directly to writing an Honors thesis, that would have been a huge jump. Writing the senior seminar paper that was around 20 pages was an important step in between.

What would you do differently if you could go back in time?

I would tell myself to start writing sooner. Doesn’t matter what part, or how “perfect” it is, just write something. Although I did not like – or use - all the things I wrote in the beginning, getting the writing process started took some of the pressure off me.