The following is a guest post by Matt McCrady, a Digital Conversion Specialist for the Library of Congress.
In May 2018, the Veterans History Project (VHP) updated its collections policy. While civilian accounts are no longer within the scope of the Veterans History Project, previously accessioned civilian collections remain in the VHP collection. One such civilian collection is that of Venus Ramey, profiled here. During World War II, Ramey sold over $5 million in war bonds, entertained the troops with musical performances, and visited veterans hospitals, where her interactions with wounded men profoundly influenced her views on war and politics, and led to her own attempt at a political career after World War II.
To the thief, the rural Kentucky tobacco farm probably seemed like an easy target for a brazen, broad-daylight robbery of farm equipment. There was only an elderly woman who lived there. What could she do to stop him? Little did the thief know the mettle of the woman he was about to face, Venus Ramey.
By 2007, the year of the attempted robbery, 82-year-old Ramey had spent much of her life standing up for herself, many times in the face of men more arrogant and powerful than this petty thief. There was the time a radio station sponsor condescendingly told her she was unlikely to win the Miss America title. “I’m sure you’ll get in the top group,” he said, “but you’re too fat to win” (audio interview, 01:02:00.0). Against his prediction, Ramey went on to become Miss America that year, 1944.
Then there was the time in 1951 when she ran for the Kentucky legislature as a Democrat and the first female political candidate in the history of Lincoln County, Kentucky. The opposition she met was insurmountable and close to home. As she relates, “My husband was against me, his family was against me, everybody. One woman wrote me, she said, ‘I think you should stay home and take care of your children.’”
Ramey did not win her race that year, but she remained steadfast in her belief in the power of political participation, and she continued her own activism in a private capacity for the rest of her life. Politics gave Ramey “a pulpit to make [herself] heard” (audio interview, 00:17:07.0 – 00:18:00.0), but unfortunately, the liberal causes she championed were unpopular. Nevertheless, Ramey never sacrificed her values or her independence for man or money.
Venus Ramey was born into a family living near Ashland, Kentucky, in 1924. Venus was her given name, but her mother gave it to her precisely because it sounded like a good stage name. Practically from birth, her mother trained her for a life of pageants and trading on her beauty in order to escape the circumscribed life of a farm girl. Ramey’s experience of being pushed to perform, from age four, when her mother entered her in her first beauty pageant, to winning Miss America two decades later, gave her a cynical perspective on the life of a child model.
“It’s terrible what they do to children,” she would say, (audio interview, 00:06:50.0). “They won’t let them work in sweatshops, they’re very particular about the child labor laws, but they let them model” (audio interview, 00:07:44.0). Her opinion of the economic exploitation of women and children would extend into politics. She saw the “filthy” nepotism, sexism, and horse trading that went into politics, and it made her “so disillusioned and ashamed” (audio interview, 00:12:30.0). Most disillusioning of all was the callous way in which politicians sent the children of poor people to die or to be wounded and maimed in foreign wars, she said. Ramey was a pacifist, and one of the reasons she ran for office was her opposition to the Korean War.
She had seen the horrifying effects of war firsthand just seven years prior during World War II. After winning Miss America, Ramey became a “bond girl,” travelling the country selling war bonds—she personally sold over $5 million in bonds—and visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals such as Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital. What she saw in these wards would catalyze her political activism for the rest of her life.
I remember one particular boy was lying there, practically naked. He had bandages all over his head. He was such a handsome boy…so seriously injured. I don’t know whether he came out of it or not. That made me hate war even more.” (audio interview, 00:53:59.0 – 00:54:33.0).
Despite the misery she witnessed, there were lighthearted moments in Ramey’s wartime career. Her favorite memory was becoming the pin-up girl for the 15th Air Force stationed in Foggia, Italy. One of the B-17 bombers was even named after her, and her image was painted on it as nose art. The Venus Ramey and her crew would survive the war, a feat which the men attributed to Ramey’s beauty protecting them (audio interview, 01:07:33.0 – 01:18:05.0). She would continue to participate in war-related reunions and commemorations for the rest of her life.
After her stint in politics in 1951, Ramey and her husband divorced. She worked a variety of jobs to support herself and her children, including as a dressmaker, but in the end she returned to her family’s Kentucky tobacco farm, where she lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity—until that spring day in 2007, when a man boldly tried to rob her.
Anyone who thought Venus Ramey would stand down, even at age 82, didn’t know her story. Leaning on her walker, the elderly Ramey drew a .38 revolver and pointed it at the man. He told her he would just be on his way, and she replied coolly, “Oh no you won’t,” and shot out the tires on his car so he couldn’t flee before the police arrived to arrest him.
In her statement to the press about the incident, Ramey downplayed her personal history, in which she was always in the middle of life, art, and politics, demanding she be taken seriously.
“I’m trying to live a quiet, peaceful life and stay out of trouble,” she told a reporter. “And all it is, is one thing after another.”
She may not have been looking for trouble, but this remarkable woman still carried a pistol for those days when trouble found her.
Ramey lived ten more years, dying on June 17, 2017. Like the B-17 “Flying Fortress” named after her, she survived many personal wars, living and dying on her own terms, on her own land, her intelligence, wit, and integrity as sharp and as staunch as it was in 1944, 1951, and 2007.
The full audio interview with Venus Ramey is part of the Veterans History Project archives; listen to it here: https://memory.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.15973/.