Posted in gender studies, material culture, military, photographs, propaganda, racism, WWII

Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II

Hegarty, Marilyn E. Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II. New York: New York University Press, 2008.

Women’s bodies were nationalized and their sexuality militarized during WWII. While men’s bodies were drafted into battle, women’s bodies were called upon to support the war effort, in part, by maintaining servicemen’s morale.[1] More than 200,000 women served in the United States military during World War II, while over six million flooded the American workforce. Countless more supported the war effort through activities like selling war bonds and rationing.  Common knowledge of women’s contributions during the war often is limited to images of “Rosie the Riveter.”[2]  Hegarty’s Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes presents a counter-narrative to the iconic Rosie the Riveter story. In addition to the socially acceptable roles women played during the war, tens of thousands of women supported the war effort by providing morale-boosting services to male soldiers that ranged from USO dances to more blatant forms of sexual services, such as prostitution.

While the de-sexualized Rosie was celebrated in the media, women who used their feminine wiles to serve their country faced discrimination and imprisonment from morals campaigns launched by government and social agencies. This double-standard was summed up by U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) physician Otis Anderson, who dubbed these women “patriotutes” (part patriot, part prostitute), further blurring the line between patriotism and promiscuity (between “good” and “bad” women).[3] Advertisements and popular magazines contributed to these mixed messages by condemning promiscuity while at the same time encouraging female readers to make themselves sexually alluring to soldiers.

Authorities from government, military, health, and social reform agencies developed plans to protect the wartime state and male health by controlling what they perceived as dangerous female sexuality. They succeeded through linking prostitution with venereal disease.[4]  Even though many young women’s reputations were questionable, they were nonetheless mobilized by the state to serve the military’s needs. Hegarty points out that “[p]rostitution was illegal, promiscuity was immoral, female sexuality was dangerous, but sexual labor was essential to the war effort—a veritable catch-22.”[5] Policymakers (military and civilian) intensely debated whether to criminalize prostitution or regulate the practice by screening and licensing prostitutes.

There was not much consensus across the forty-eight states and territories. Hawaii had a longstanding and successful history of legalized prostitution, while many states shut down their brothels as soon as the May Act was implemented in 1941. Some advocates for prostitution regulation argued that policies would protect soldiers from disease and protect respectable women from soldiers. Authorities generally agreed that (white male) soldiers should not (or could not) be sexually restrained. Hegarty notes that one study suggested that men “often act with impunity because acts of aggression (including rape) are linked to traditional images of what it is to be a warrior, because of women being seen as men’s property, or because women fear to speak out.”[6] This study suggests that the warrior image these men embraced is to blame, for it promoted the mindset that soldiers have the right to rape women because that is what warriors do.

Silence around rape is a huge issue during wartime.[7] But women became the ones responsible for stopping unwanted advances.[8]  Hegarty points out that wartime statistics show that reported rapes increased, but those statistics are probably low. She writes, “It seems likely that, given the discourse of servicemen as victims and of girls and women as responsible for sexual control, many pressured sexual encounters were not defined as rape.”[9] This image of warriors as rapists is not an image that Americans will readily accept.

The belief that some bodies (female and nonwhite) were dangerous shaped government policies and social attitudes during World War II. Knowledge about deviance and disease was formed around preexisting assumptions regarding particular bodies. And because the disease in question was sexually transmitted, the bodies in question were constituted as dangerous, both morally and medically.[10] The campaigns to prevent sexually transmitted diseases from harming the health of the military focused primarily on controlling women; however, African Americans were also perceived as “sexually promiscuous” and came under scrutiny as well.[11] Hegarty sheds light on numerous biased health studies and treatments of African Americans, including the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study. She also repeatedly shows how authorities exempted white males from the same level of scrutiny given to females and minorities.

Governmental racist policies and regulations ensured that nonwhite men (civilian and military) were controlled and contained in a variety of ways. Hegarty asserts that within the segregated military, race-based sexual politics guaranteed that African American men and women suffered numerous personal and professional indignities. Citing one case in point, Hegarty explains that in the Caribbean, military officials allowed white servicemen to cohabit with Polynesian women, but black servicemen were prevented from doing so because offspring would be considered “undesirable citizens.”[12]

[1] Hegarty, 7.

[2] Sean Irwin, “Beyond Rosie the Riveter: Women’s Contributions During World War II,” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed December 15, 2016.

[3] Hegarty, 1.

[4] Ibid., 13.

[5] Ibid., 85.

[6] Ibid., 89.

[7] Sexual assault is, and has been, a huge issue in the United States military, for men and women. Numerous books and documentaries have been published on MSA (Military Sexual Assault) that both document the issues and provide assistance to survivors.

[8] Hegarty, 160-61.

[9] Ibid., 160.

[10] Ibid., 61.

[11] Ibid., 65.

[12] Ibid., 160.