Skirting the Issue

skirtingtheissue

My cousin was met with disapproval rather than pride after announcing she was one of the first women to enlist.

by Lois Greene Stone

World wars; males pretended to be proud to strap guns to their shoulders, and the public gave them appreciation and approval. Females, only as nurses, were on battlefields… until 1943, when the first women’s armed corps was recognized.

I was just a single digit in age as I carefully hung a silk star on my window; my bedroom faced the street, and all who passed knew our household had a loved one who was a soldier. My mother’s three unmarried brothers and one of her cousins had been drafted. The star didn’t mean that these were Jewish men serving, but the silk square was a government issue.

Men in uniform. The few women in the neighborhood who put on slacks and went to work in a factory were regarded poorly: tsk-tsk, they should be in skirts and aprons at home with their children. Happily, no aunts or uncles knew a Jewish lady-worker in slacks making munitions. But my father’s oldest niece did something shameful: she enlisted in the newly established Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

I didn’t quite understand the distress to the entire family. A woman in the military was unheard of, and a Jewish lady to volunteer! My cousin had to be pretty old, probably around 18 then. She must have felt patriotic or special. I overheard words about women being citizens who ought to have the same rights to help our country; I overheard that only men should fight wars.

People gathered and often spoke with great pride about their sons or husbands being in the armed service. Like some badges of extra-courage, they exclaimed that Jewish men were helping to win this war, didn’t they look good in uniform, and they were also seeing so many parts of the world. Some folks complained about ration books; I really didn’t know what those were and didn’t much care, either.

My cousin rang my parents’ doorbell, knowing the family had gathered for one of my mother’s meals. She was wearing a uniform. She had on a tie, like a man, and a hat that wasn’t the frilly stuff my mom wore on her head. She said she volunteered for the army, a new women’s army that some lady named Eleanor Roosevelt had pushed to make possible. This cousin said she felt patriotic, important. The relatives looked at her as if she were wearing a Halloween costume they didn’t approve of. The uniform was perfectly ironed; her skirt didn’t even have one wrinkle. Would her legs get scratched lying on a battlefield, I wondered? Is a gun heavy? Would kosher food be available wherever she went in the whole world? I liked my pretty dresses and hair bows and my ankle socks with tiny flowers on the cuffs; I liked my Mary-Jane patent leather dress shoes, and looking like “me” and no one else. A uniform was for the parochial school girls, and I was glad I wasn’t Catholic and didn’t have to go to private school dressed like everyone else. Did this cousin actually like being in a uniform?!

I collected tin foil, picking up bits of discarded cigarette wrappers and rolling them into balls; my mom poured grease into wide-mouth jars, and every tin can went someplace with the foil and grease to help the war effort. In school I was told that the collected grease allowed army bullets to slide through the guns, and a whole pound of that grease really made enough dynamite to blow up a big enemy’s bridge! And all that tin foil was recycled in tanks and jeep cars. We even donated rags and leftover scraps of material from our home-sewn items, and servicemen got bandages or blankets made of those. My parents planted a Victory Garden in our backyard, and we grew real vegetables that we actually ate! My allowance went to War Bonds and penny candy. I was patriotic, too. My cousin didn’t stay long, not even for dessert. Just wanted to say goodbye. She seemed to smile, but a serious one, not a giggling grin, and left.

“She should be married.” “She should be working as a secretary.” “She should be….” went on and on as the family expressed upset that a woman, a Jewish relative no less, joined the army. Why were these people so proud of the men and so angry with my cousin? She was in a skirt as part of her uniform. There wasn’t a silk star in any window for a woman in the military. Voices rose in pitch: she volunteered for the WACS! How disgraceful.

The war’s end meant I had to go to shul in long skirts with yards of fabric, something called the “new look,” and listen to people speak of Israel becoming a state, or something like that. Parties were held for returning soldiers, working women went back to skirts and stovetops rather than slacks and machine tools. Were WACS or the female volunteer naval WAVES given parties after peace treaties were signed? Was my cousin banished once again to sit in the women’s section of the synagogue even though she was army trained like a man? Did she mind that family didn’t recognize her strength or honor? I never asked, as anticipation to turn the double-digit age of 10 was much more important to me.

How different it is in 2011. Many women prefer slacks to skirts; the once-privileged all-male universities have co-eds; females fight fires and don police outfits. Few would know that housewives contributed so much recycling to aid the military during World War II. Fewer might know that women weren’t officially recognized or compensated for armed service until the 1940s. Our current volunteer army has no gender issue nor social stigma. My cousin was among the “firsts,” with courage not just to enlist, but to deal with disapproval. If she looked back, would she have considered herself a pioneer or a rebel? My blue bin holds newspapers, rinsed-out empty glass bottles, plastic laundry jugs, cans, cartons. Weekly I bring all plastic wrappings to a recycle bin. I even return hangers. My upbringing. Our American flag’s stars were rearranged when two more states were added. Flag-stars still remind me of the square of silk that covered a section of window glass during World War II.

Stars and Spears of David

Hup, two, three, four.
This is the Army Mr. Jones,
song written during World War,
not the one to end all wars. Just
second big one; more to
come. Couple of women
relatives were WACS
or WAVES; who’d know
those terms today? In
uniform, they were not
accepted by family that
felt only men should
serve. And Jewish
women besides? Shame.

Israel. Girls learn to
shoot, get drafted.
Would I have toted
a weapon instead
of a corsage had
I been an Israeli, age
eighteen? Is there an
acronym for Hebrew
female fighters?

WACS. First gals
to go to war as soldiers.
They volunteered.
Israeli teens don’t
have that luxury.
My American
bubble baths
don’t exist in
bomb shelters.

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

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