Women During Wartime
September 24, 1942 — Women’s Committee of the American Institute of Banking, Stratfield Hotel, Bridgeport CT
With your kind invitation asking me to attend your meeting tonight, I received the request to speak on the subject of “The Role of American Women in Wartime.” The chairlady said in short that this was not to be a political speech. So don’t look now, anybody, I’m running for Congress. Nevertheless I hasten to reassure all of you, though, that it is my earnest wish that no one read any personal political implications into anything I say tonight. This, insofar as my campaign is concerned, is completely off the record.
As we sit in this comfortable room, after so pleasant a dinner, it is easy to contemplate, calmly and impersonally, what lies ahead for us women in this wartime America of ours. For us this is not a subject that burst upon us suddenly on the day the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor. For we women of Connecticut long before that day had started to play an important part in the defense effort. Long before Pearl Harbor some of us were busy at our desks, more crowded with work than for many years; some of us were already beginning to tackle jobs being vacated by men as they left for military service.
Some of us were busy in the production rooms of our Red Cross chapters; we were taking courses in first aid, nutrition, home nursing and all the rest.
And women were busy at a lot of other, more familiar tasks, too, for in spite of the quickened pace of their daily lives, they could not stop being homemakers. They had homes to manage, children to rear, husbands to feed.
So, as I say, it did not take Pearl Harbor to make the women of Connecticut conscious of the fact that their daily lives were being changed by war. Long before Pearl Harbor the women of Connecticut were already making ready to serve their country, as they served their homes.
And certainly long before Pearl Harbor, you women were actively interested in the problems of banking. Banking, I sometimes think, is balancing the budget, a problem which housewives have handled for hundreds of generations, from the time when one bone equaled two pots of stew for three hungry cavemen until now, when inflation threatens, and women once again must call upon these age-old resources of their minds to cope with this new, grim, financial problem.
For you know and I that banking is not all dull statistics, and cute pie charts of output and climbing stair graphs of outgo; it is the blood and guts of American economy. Hitler, with his slave labor, need not worry — for the moment — about banking. He simply loots. But in America we still believe in honesty and a fair day’s pay for a job well done. Banking today has a tremendous job to do in seeing that our production lines keep rolling, that our boys in the armed forces are supplied, that the home front is vigorously maintained, that our form of Government survives.
Banks have also done a tremendous job in fighting the war directly by selling billions of dollars of War Bonds (85% of total). They have financed the conversion and expansion of industry from peace-time to war-time production, and they have fought inflation by restrictions of consumer credit and unwise expenditures. And they have frozen foreign credits to prevent their falling into the hands of the enemy or his satellites.
Today it is up to us women to play our part in making sure that the free enterprise of which the banking system is an inherent part, endures. Incidentally it is because of my own belief in that system that I am campaigning as the Republican candidate for Congress from this district.
You all remember the President Henry W. Koeneke of the American Bankers Association wrote in the recent “Convention in Print” issue of Banking Magazine:
“War is an intolerant taskmaster. It requires that private institutions serve its needs as effectively as they serve the needs of the peacetime way of life. Otherwise it may not tolerate them. Therefore we have a dual obligation as private institutions. It is to see that these institutions serve as effectively as wartime mechanism as they do as a peacetime mechanism. As they help to win the war and to serve the war needs of the people will they assure their continued place in society.”
President Koeneke has summed up the problem before us women here tonight in that memorable statement. We are gathered here, all of us, dedicated to the proposition that private enterprise and private institutions shall endure, not for their own sakes but because we believe that freedom of thought and ability is the best guarantee that we shall win this war and the peace that follows. . . . Freedom to think and to criticize constructively on war plans and post-war aims; ability to carry those plans into actual achievement.
Today, only those unfamiliar with our State could doubt that in Connecticut women have a very real place in that achievement. Tonight in Bridgeport thousands of women are working at Remington Arms Co., turning out the tools of war. More are building planes at Vought-Sikorsky in Stratford, while others are busily sewing the stout fabric of victory at Singer Sewing Machine Co. within a few miles of this meeting. The list is endless; Connecticut women are working for victory at the Auto Ordinance Corp. in Bridgeport …manufacturers of the all-important machine tools. And over in Stamford women will work at the lathes in Yale and Towne, making locks of war that will one day bind Hitler into a strong-studded cell.
And you women here tonight, who are studying for new and ever more important duties in war-time banking; your job is not the least of these, for without the ready, controlled flow of capital and credit into these industries, jobs would stop, production would halt, the brave boys of America would be stranded on lonely, far-flung beaches for lack of the very tools of war.
It is your job to provide those tools. It is your job to keep the institutions of credit and finance alive and vigorous, able to do its job smoothly and well in these perilous times. The somber shadow of inflation hangs heavy over the land tonight. In Washington a group of selfish men seek at this very moment to send food prices sky-rocketing so that their own favored groups may benefit.
It is your dual job, to paraphrase President Koeneke, to fight this war as women bankers and as women. As our own chancellors of the home exchequer we know what the high cost of living really means in terms of less food on the table, less milk for the children, fewer meals for our men. And as bankers you know what inflation can do to our economy. None knows better than you that inflation can blow our production lines powder-keg high, shatter our form of government, and blast us into a ruthless dictatorship, where the great steadying strength of finance is gone and only brutal force remains.
And now I am going to say something which I could only say among us girls. So far in this war we are still the luckiest women in the whole world. For instance we still have lipsticks, and even some silk stockings. And although many of us have gone into uniforms, they are still made of good cloth and are well cut. Sisters, for a lot of us, perhaps too many of us, important though the part we have played in it so far, it is still easy — and I almost said “glamorous” for us. But, believe me, for each of us these are the good old days now, my friends.
Now we have got to face a great, big fact. We have got to face the fact that the ‘interesting’ part of our participation in this war effort is just about over. There isn’t going to be any glamour in what we have to do from here on in. I realize that for most women there is little that is glamorous in a war, any war. But we have to be frank enough with ourselves to admit that in our effort to help, we have still managed to do a lot of things that are both helpful and, by a remarkable coincidence, attractive . We’ve been able, as we went about our wartime activities, to find time to wonder, as I say, a little about those uniforms. We’ve had time to be disturbed a bit about the freezing of fashion designs, about the lack of silk stockings. Yes, we’ve found time to look a little for glamorous.
But, from here on in to victory, glamour is out and toughness is in. From here on in to victory, girls, the way is going to be hard. From here on in, women and men and children, too, for that matter, are going to have to take on the serious task of winning this war. Our president has called this the “toughest war in history” and whether you here tonight class yourself as a political follower of the president or one of his political opponents, you must accept that definition as completely accurate.
What, then are we women going to do in the tough days that lie ahead? Well, we’re going to do a lot of the things we are doing right now, but we are going to do them a lot more intensely and, if you will pardon me, a lot more intelligently.
With our men, we’re going to work and fight for victory. We’re going to submit, but we’re going to understand why we submit to, rules and regulations; we’re going to take, and manage with, more and more rationing. We’re going to have colder homes, different foods, less clothing — we’re going to accept the challenges imposed by these conditions. We’re going to keep our homes and jobs going because we know, being women, what happens if we don’t keep them going.
The women of the next few years — and please believe that my use of the plural ‘years’ while pessimistic, is honest–the women of the next few crucial years are going to see that their children, those precious treasures for whom we fight, are kept healthy and warm and well fed and well schooled and as happy as possible under conditions which are bound to become less and less favorable and not at all glamorous for anyone from here on in.
Yes, ladies, the road ahead is going to be a bumpy one. it is going to be full of ruts and rocks, the ruts of endless, colorless effort, and the rocks of almost insurmountable obstacles. It takes no gifted prophet to foresee this road to victory. A soft war leads to a hard peace. A hard war leads to a happy peace. We must fight a hard war. I think we will not much long kid ourselves that this war can be won by an effort which, though extremely great, is still a comfortable one. I think we are coming to the grim realization that such dreams of comfort are insidious saboteurs of our war effort.
We have got to come to some grim conclusions in the days that lie ahead. We have got to come to the conclusion that it will not be won until we all fight to win it, every minute of every hour of every day, from here on in. We dare not measure our effort by its drain on our comforts; we dare to measure it only by its contribution toward the victory for which we fight.
How do women fight a war when they have to? Certain pictures come to my mind. One is the picture of an old Chinese woman, dragging her tired body down the hot, dusty Burma road. No glamorous representative of her truly magnificent people, this old woman, and yet she fought. Haggard, ragged, hungry and tired, she fought. There is not much room in her weary mind for worries about fashion freezing, or a low sugar ration–or even a shampoo and wave once every two weeks, or a meatless day once a week. What was fashion or lipsticks to her who had worn one blue coolie coat for perhaps five years? What is a low ration to her who got no sugar or meat at all from one end of the week to the next? No there is nothing soft about this woman in my memory. She was merely a tired old woman, fighting her country’s war, all-out.
And how did she fight? Did she knit, or sew, or work in a factory? No, my friends, her job is a little harder. She carried a factory. She carried a factory in her bare hands, piece by piece, wheel by wheel, belt by belt and shaft by shaft — over hundreds of miles of road, so that those factories, dismantled in an area which can be reached by Japanese bombs, may be set up again in the interior, to produce their brave materials, temporarily safe from attack. There is another alarming picture, a picture of a healthy young Russian girl. I have seen that one in the papers. What does she do to fight? She kills Nazis — over 300 of them. She hides in the corner of a bombed building and she snipes at Nazis as they advance toward her lines. Fashions, rationing, shortages? Do they trouble her?
And there is another picture, this time of a British Mother, as she gazed at the ruins of the house that once was hers, the house that held her every dream, her every hope — bombed to bits, blasted to a splintery oblivion. I saw her face lined with harsh wrinkles, it had a message: keep fighting, it said, keep fighting, all day and every day.
Those pictures, my friends, are alarming — not because we would flinch in the face of necessities as stern as those women face. Rich or poor, women in banking, or factories, or homes, we have the stuff that it takes to face them; make no mistake about that. I have gone about the world considerably of late and I have come to see and know its people, and if there is one thing I believe in it is that we Americans have whatever degree of courage or stamina or guts that this war will take. We lack only one thing — a little more knowledge of what odds we face and the way we are being coddled and cozened beyond our will. But that, I cannot mention for that would lead me into a campaign speech. Nevertheless, my friends, those pictures are alarming because they reveal that those women are displaying a determination we have not yet been told we may be yet forced to assume. Between the back-breaking work of the old Chinese woman and the comparatively comfortable effort women like ourselves are making there is an alarming gap. If I were asked what is the chief job of the American women in the days that lie ahead, I would say that is the job of closing that gap, despite the soft confused war efforts still being made in Washington. It is the job of facing the fact that this is the toughest war in our history and of making every other American understand that great big fact. This is no easy job, and it will not be a pleasant one.
So let us women here tonight resolve that we will now, tonight, begin to assume it. Let us both do our jobs, as all women in this war will do their jobs, resolutely and well, whether they are making bombers in Las Vegas, sewing sailor suits in Brooklyn, or learning to fight the silent but vital battles of our national economy and well-being here in Bridgeport tonight. And help our country to do its job, which is to fight this war, so that we shall win it, without wrecking our country, throwing our economic system into hopeless disrepair, and wasting the blood of our sons needlessly.
Source: Clare Boothe Luce Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC