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“Going Where We’re Needed Most”: Recruitment of Military Women Over the Decades

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The following is a blog post by Lisa Gomez and Sam Meier, Junior Fellows working for the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer. To read their previous blog posts from this summer, go here and here.

Military recruiting poster with a woman in uniform and an American flag waving in the background. Poster text asks: "Are you a girl with a Star-Spangled heart? Join the WAC now!"
WAC Recruiting Poster, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress,

Lisa’s flashback to 2015:

I have a vivid memory of listening to Ashton Carter, then-Secretary of Defense, announce that the United States military would open all combat jobs to women—no exceptions. Hearing this announcement, which came almost a century after women were allowed to join the military as nurses and support staff during the final two years of World War I, I felt such admiration for the first female officers and soldiers of the infantry. I wondered how such an important policy amendment had come to take place. More specifically, I was interested in the individual stories that led to these changes. My Google search that day led me to the Veterans History Project. VHP’s mission to make the personal experiences of United States veterans accessible to the general public fascinated me.

When the opportunity presented itself to serve as a Junior Fellow at VHP this summer, with a specific focus on improving access to female veterans’ collections, I couldn’t have been more excited. My fellow Junior Fellow, Sam Meier, and I are grateful to be a part of the ongoing, essential work being conducted at VHP. Every one of these collections provide glimpses into a history that is widely unrecorded. This blog post highlights some of the particularly meaningful items from VHP’s collections that Sam and I selected to present at the 2018 Junior Fellows Display Day at the Library of Congress.

Sam here!

Contemporary photo of two women watching oral history on a computer
Lisa Gomez (left) and Sam Meier caption oral history excerpts for use in Display Day, Summer 2018. Photo by Megan Harris.

As Lisa mentioned, she and I have spent the past 10 weeks at VHP on a very rewarding assignment. VHP is still working to make its holdings mirror the demographics of the United States’ veteran population. Women make up nearly 10% of the veteran population, but only six percent of VHP collections—about 6,600 out of 104,000—were created and donated to VHP by female veterans. Yet we know that many VHP users are interested in female veterans’ experiences. Making these collections more visible is an important element of VHP’s continued outreach to female veterans. It is crucial to “see yourself in history,” as archivist Michelle Caswell puts it.

When we talk about improving access to the materials in VHP’s care, we often talk about public access—including processing collections, creating finding aids, digitizing materials for the website, creating reference copies, assisting researchers in the reading room and all the other work staff do to make sure that members of the public can use the collections. However, it is equally important that VHP enhance its internal access to the collections. VHP receives about 400 donations each month. Often, staff are only able to collect and create high-level data about each collection as it comes in, rather than the kind of rich descriptive data that really helps one appreciate its value.  The more details provided, the better staff can help members of the public find what they are looking for.

To support both public and internal access to the collections, Lisa and I were tasked with three projects:

  • to review the collections of female veterans, locate items with high research value in previously underutilized collections, and create descriptive text to enrich VHP’s current internal database records for these items and collections;
  • to create Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aids for selected female veterans’ collections;
  • to develop digital forensics recovery workflows in conjunction with Amanda May at Preservation Reformatting so that VHP can recover data from damaged CDs and DVDs.

Where to Begin: Creating a Narrative

As we began thinking about what to present for Junior Fellows Display Day, we decided to focus on the work we were doing to enhance access to the collections of female veterans. Displaying archival and oral history materials gave us the chance to engage library visitors and staff alike with VHP’s collections. We hoped our display would enrich our historical understanding of women’s military service, spark discussions, and challenge visitors to learn more about VHP and the wonderful material in its care.

Lisa and I knew that we wanted to pick out a specific narrative thread within the broader topic of women’s experiences in the military. We know that female veterans are not a homogenous group, and we both thought it was important to showcase the diversity of the female veteran population and their lived experiences. We wanted to illustrate the challenges encountered by, and opportunities afforded to, women in the service over the decades, beginning with the establishment of segregated female armed forces in the 1940s. We also thought carefully about how to showcase the diversity of media formats within VHP’s collections, and how to include audiovisual materials and digitized or born-digital content alongside analog historical items.

With all of this in mind, Lisa and I began searching the collections to identify interesting archival resources for our table top display—pamphlets, photographs, radio scripts, journals, and so on. As we were examining one of the collections we had pulled for review, we stumbled across this photo, from the Marcella Irene Martin collection:

Sepia image of three women in uniform at desks on the phone.
Marcella Martin, left, with two other WACs, making appointments for recruiting home visits, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [1944]. Marcella Martin Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/101363.
Listening to Martin’s oral history interview, we learned that the women in the photograph were Martin (left) and two other Women’s Army Corps (WAC) members who had been assigned to recruiting duty in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The photo shows Martin and the others cold-calling young women in the area to try to convince them to enlist as Army nurses. According to Martin, getting young women to enlist was a hard sell. During home visits, parents would yell at WAC recruiters, saying they had already sent their sons to war and that they didn’t want to lose their daughters, too.

The Call for Women

Black and white headshot of woman in uniform looking off.
Violet Hill Gordon completing Officer Candidate School, 1942. Violet Hill Gordon Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/00146.

Hearing Martin’s story, Lisa and I started thinking about how much has changed since World War II.

In an unprecedented global conflict, the United States needed participation from all of its citizens. For the first time, women were heavily recruited to join the United States military. A common refrain across the branches of the service was that women could support the war effort by “freeing a man to fight.” Though most WWII-era recruits were white women, African American women and women of other races and ethnicities were essential to women’s success in the military. Nonetheless, women of color faced added hurdles such as caps on recruitment numbers (only 10% of all female recruits could be African American) and segregation by race as well as gender. All female recruits were given roles which aligned with gendered stereotypes of acceptable labor for women, such as nursing or secretarial duties.

Even with all these constraints, many Americans felt that it was inappropriate for women to serve in the military at all. In 1943, the newly-formed Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), Women Marines, and Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS) had their work cut out for them convincing American men and women alike that serving in the military was not just a socially acceptable choice for women, but a laudable one. But what about after World War II ended? What happened then?

Vetting the Veterans Collections

Lisa and I began querying VHP’s internal database to find other female veterans who either served as recruiters themselves, mentioned their own recruitment in their oral history interviews, or donated materials connected to recruiting efforts. Most of the physical materials we found were donated by WWII veterans, which didn’t surprise us. WWII-era collections form about 60% of VHP’s total collection and about 60% of female veterans’ collections within VHP.

After reviewing a number of WWII-era collections, we chose a handful of analog items which most closely hewed to the topic of recruitment, including:

  • a 1943 script for a weekly radio show called “GI Girl Reporter,” written by Hallie Sherry during her time as a recruiter in St. Louis, Missouri;
  • a 1944 pamphlet called Facts You Want to Know About the WAC donated by Mary Goodsell, another recruiter who served in the Women’s Army Corps beginning in World War II, through the Korean War, and up until the Vietnam War before ending her service in 1973;
  • and selections from Gladys Echols’ extensive scrapbook documenting her time with the WAVES, such as a 1944 letter written by Echols’ mother to the U.S. Navy Recruiting Station telling the recruiters that she would encourage any girl to join the WAVES to build self-reliance.

Next, we returned to our Excel spreadsheet to look for materials donated by female veterans from more contemporary conflicts. We located two other items we thought fit our theme. Both objects spoke to women’s expanded role in the all-volunteer force, and to the educational and career benefits which recruiters increasingly used to draw them to military service in the first place. These were:

  • a press release announcing Cynthia Eythell’s 1988 scholarship to study at Prairie View A&M University Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) Unit in Prairie View, Texas after she completed the Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training (BOOST) officer training program;
  • the July 1984 issue of the Gompers Gazette, a publication put out by the USS Samuel Gompers, opened to a two-page spread titled “KNOW YOUR SHIPMATES” which featured five (out of eight) female Naval personnel donated by Michelle Clinton.
Color photo of two women standing behind display
Lisa Gomez (left) and Sam Meier stand behind their display items at the table top review with the Conservation Division, July 2018.

Locating these items required us to dig deep into VHP’s non-digitized holdings and probe the collection beyond the roster of items used in previous exhibitions. Because we had time to engage deeply with these less well-known collections, we were able to find the “treasures” (as the Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden calls them) that we suspected were there all along.

Changing Roles, Changing Technologies

Purple background with quote from oral history stating: "for two weeks I'm surrounded by Coast Guard recruitment paraphernalia, making it look all cool and glamourous. I was probably 15, 16, 17, still in high school"
A quote from Holly Harrison’s audio oral history interview regarding her recruitment to the Coast Guard in the late 1980s. Holly Harrison Collection, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress, AFC2001/001/46660.

Our table nearly full, Lisa and I returned to a key question: how should we display digital materials? We had noticed that younger veterans tended to donate digital photos or scanned documents over diaries or letters. VHP’s Senior Reference Specialist, Megan Harris, suggested that we consider VHP’s mini iPad, which she has recently begun using in displays for this purpose.

We decided to use both digital items that were not available through VHP’s website, such as a digital photo donated by Maria Villescas, as well as digitized or born-digital material that anyone can access online, like Patricia Pollard.

This brought us to our final dilemma: what would we do about the audio and video recordings of oral history interviews with female veterans?

Neither Lisa nor I wanted to force visitors to put on headphones in order to listen to our materials, especially in a noisy setting with lots of other materials to see. Instead, we chose to listen to audio oral history recordings to identify good pull quotes—a sentence or two pertaining to that veteran’s experience with recruiting. After going through about 30 interviews, we landed on three good quotes about rcruiting. I used Photoshop to create simple, text-based designs using the Veterans History Project’s usual font and color schemes. Then we loaded the .tif files onto our iPad to break up our other content.

Finally, we asked VHP Liaison Specialist Owen Rogers for help in creating and captioning short clips from the longer video oral histories available on VHP’s website. We had thought ahead and prepared transcripts for the portions of the videos we wanted to use. Owen taught us how to use Adobe Premiere Pro to select and clip particular segments from the .mp4 files we downloaded. We spent several painstaking hours syncing tiny pieces of dialogue to written text in the Open Caption track. That way, we figured, we could turn the sound off on Display Day and people would still be able to know what was happening in the video.

After we finished each individual clip, we strung together our four captioned .mov files in Premiere and used Adobe Media Encoder to export our supercut as an .mp4 file.

Display Day, Everyday

It’s Lisa again!

On July 25, 2018, our Display Day visitors were inquisitive and engaged. Each one wanted to learn more about the female veterans who overcame negative stereotypes and occupational limitations in order to enlist.

Color image of woman standing behind display table as other individuals look on
2018 Junior Fellows Program annual display day, July 25, 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

The story of women in the military is one of triumph over adversity, of rising to a challenge. As the roles of women in the military expanded, female military personnel executed their ever-more-crucial roles with aplomb, dedicating themselves and their careers to the United States military. The multitude of efforts recruiters engaged in over the years to enlist and retain women due to their skills, intelligence, and expertise reflects the resilience and dedication of female veterans themselves.

Sam and I were thrilled to have this opportunity to make the stories of female veterans come alive for library staff and members of the general public. We are deeply honored to have been able to share a few female veterans’ stories on Display Day, but we are even more proud to have supported the Veterans History Project in continuing to improve access to all of its collections.

Comments (4)

  1. Such a great presentation for Display Day. Sam and Lisa really did an awesome job!

  2. Most interesting! I guess it is time to send in my oral report of my 35 years in the Navy; having served in Vietnam during the war there and serving in about 5 other countries and many U.S. states. Thank you for doing this project!

  3. What an interesting story! My mother-in-law served in the WAVES during WWII. Thanks for doing this important work.

  4. Lisa and Sam worked tirelessly to execute an outstanding exhibit on Women’s Military Service through Oral History.

    Their energy and resourcefulness shine through here and are truly inspiring!

    Wonderful work!

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