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WOMEN AND THE WORLD WARS

Oklahoma women made vital contributions toward victory in both the first and second world wars, serving in a wide variety of capacities in the armed forces, in industry, and on the home front. Given the late entry of the United States into World War I in 1917 (the war began in 1914) American women had less time to mobilize than their European counterparts. However, they still found numerous ways to become involved in the war effort. At home they joined men in debating sedition laws and standardized food prices, witnessed the federal government take control of the railroad industry and large sectors of the economy, and watched as more than two million men volunteered for or were drafted into the armed forces.

More than ninety thousand Oklahoma men served. More than one thousand were killed and 6,286 wounded, causing a great impact on families. Oklahoma women shouldered the burden of providing for their families while their husbands and/or fathers were away. Almost half a million women joined one of 344 American Red Cross organizations throughout the state. Others volunteered in military canteens in towns such as Lawton or at bases such as Fort Sill. At Muskogee Alice Robertson offered sandwiches, donuts, and coffee to soldiers passing through the community by train. Eventually, she took charge of a canteen supported by the Red Cross. Oklahoma women promoted the sale of war bonds and worked in factories and soup kitchens. They supported food conservation and gave seminars on gardening and cooking. At the same time, hundreds of women served as U.S. Army and Navy nurses or volunteered to serve overseas with the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the Salvation Army, or one of the other nonmilitary groups supporting the troops. They helped orphans and other civilians affected by the fighting.

Two of the more influential Oklahoman women during this period were Edith C. Johnson of Oklahoma City and Roberta E. Lawson of Nowata. Johnson wrote regular columns for the Daily Oklahoman suggesting ways in which women could help the war effort and was a strong proponent of volunteering in the Red Cross, food conservation, and factory and military service. Lawson chaired the Women's Committee of the Oklahoma State Council of National Defense and was a driving force in organizing women in all seventy-seven counties. Both are symbolic of the many women who worked on home front raising money for Liberty Loans, faced the wave of anti-German hysteria that swept the country during the war, and endured the postwar Red Scare. Women's contributions to the war effort brought them greater visibility, which helped in their fight for suffrage and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.

The pattern for Oklahoma women in World War II is very similar, though on a much larger scale, because the United States fought for a longer period of time and mobilized a far greater portion of its resources. More than two hundred thousand Oklahoma men and women served in the armed forces during the war, while thousands of others were affected by the creation of twenty-seven new army camps, thirteen naval bases, and numerous prisoner of war (POW) camps throughout the state. Oklahoma was, in fact, a microcosm of the greatest mobilization of economic might in our nation's history. Rationing, food and fuel conservation, and government control of most industries was the norm, and the critical component of victory at home was American women. More than eighteen million took jobs in industry and over three hundred thousand enlisted in the armed forces, while millions more packed their belongings and moved to wherever the best production jobs were located. Unemployment in the United States dropped from 15 percent in 1940 to 1 percent in 1944 as the nation invested heavily in war production, driving the Gross National Product (GNP) from $91 billion in 1939 to $214 billion in 1945.

Oklahoma women were directly affected by this explosive economic growth, most noticeably at the large Douglas Aircraft Company plant in Midwest City. More than 50 percent of its employees were women. Representative of those women was Wilma Farimo, who rode a bus from her Choctaw home to work at the Douglas plant. In 1942 Myrtie Lee Brannan (1918 2001) from Rattan, Oklahoma, went to work as "rosie the riveter" at Tinker Field (later Tinker Air Force Base). Between 1941 and 1945 Oklahoma women also played a powerful role in the armed forces at home and overseas while serving in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard. Between October 1942 and April 1945, 10,783 women trained as WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State University). Prominent Oklahoma women who served in the armed forces include Rosemary Hogan of Chattanooga and Mae Olson of Tulsa. Hogan served as an U.S. Army nurse on Bataan and spent the duration of World War II in a Japanese prisoner of war camp following the fall of the Philippines in 1942. Lt. Mae Olson, a combat nurse, was the first U.S. Army woman to land on Guadalcanal following the conquest of that island in 1943. They are symbolic of the millions of American women who contributed to victory in the Second World War.

SEE ALSO: WAR BOND DRIVES, WAR PRODUCTION BOARD, WOMEN, WORLD WAR I, WORLD WAR II.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Opal Hartsell Brown, Indomitable Oklahoma Women (Oklahoma City: Oklahoma Heritage Association, 1994). Glenda Carlile, Petticoats, Politics, and Pirouettes: Oklahoma Women from 1900-1950 (Tulsa, Okla.: Southern Hills Publishing Co., 1995). Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 22 September 1918. Linda Williams Reese, Women of Oklahoma, 1890-1920 (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997). Sooners in the War: Official Report of the Oklahoma State Council of Defense, From May 1917 to January 1, 1919 (Oklahoma City, Okla.: Oklahoma State Council of Defense, 1919).

Lance Janda

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