What Did You Do in the War Grandma?

War Sparks a More Active Role for Women


Story by Jodi Prochaska

Newport. Josephine Carson, a white haired, handsome woman, sitting in her vintage 1930's home, filled with memorabilia from past travels. She puts me at ease. Widowed and childless, her life is centered around her grand nieces and nephews and her support for liberal causes. Her thoughts, factual and precise, are results of her many years of work as a librarian.

During the Depression, people just did whatever they could do. I know friends of mine with college degrees from the Ivy League colleges who worked as short order cooks and in the post office. We had very educated postmen in those days. (Laughs.) After I graduated from Pembroke there were very few jobs available, especially in Newport, and so I worked in Providence. I went to work for the John Hay library at Brown, and eventually in all of their libraries until I became head of the Biological Sciences Library at Brown University. Out of our class of over a hundred who graduated, only three of us had jobs by that September. Just three of us. Women were not paid very much. Neither were men, but we were paid far, far less.

When the war broke out we weren't surprised at all. A lot of us had read Hitler's Mein Kampf. We had a lot of refugees at Brown who told us what was going on, so we weren't surprised.

When the war started Les and I had been married a very short time and we were stunned. The next day -- on Monday -- President Roosevelt spoke to us. It was during the lunch hour. Most of us who could get home went home. I know that Leslie came home from his job, and we both listened to it at our kitchen table. It was very serious and we all thought, "Well we're going to join the services and go fight."

A lot of boys didn't wait to be drafted -- they just volunteered. It was a war in which we all felt that we should go in. It was a wonderful feeling. There was no question that we had to do this. We accepted it and we went ahead with it.

My brother went into the services and did some very nasty fighting because he joined the Rangers. The Rangers were the equivalent of the Commandos. He worked with the British Commandos, the French Marquis, and the Norwegians. He was always with the group that would go in first. For instance, he was in France before D-Day -- twice. I wrote to him every single day -- long, long letters . He and I were both interested in history. I could tell every day where he was. He would just make some reference to something in history and I would know exactly where he was so this was really fun that I could follow what he was doing. It was very painful, too, because we were very close.

To help with the war effort I joined a group that rolled bandages. Beautiful tablecloths, sheets and even skirts were cut up and rolled into bandages. And we knitted a lot. My sister-in-law was single and so she went to USO's. Most of the time at the USO's what the girls did was to provide food, donuts and coffee, and would lend an ear so that the soldiers could talk, and then there were dances.

Gasoline, of course, was rationed. Leslie took the tires off, put the car up on a stand, and we just didn't use it for thirteen months. We either walked -- we were used to walking -- or we took buses. We just didn't think anything of walking and besides it saved seven cents.

In those days as soon as a woman married, she lost her job. In the summer of 1941, five of us in the library were about to get married, and we all expected to lose our jobs. We felt pretty strong in number, so we asked Dr. Van Hussin whether we would be allowed to come back. They debated all that summer, and we were allowed to come back.

My sister-in-law was the first teacher on this island to be allowed to continue after she married. She married in February of 1943. We were right in the middle of the war. She was allowed to stay on. You know married women really began their fight to stay on jobs and then later on to try for equal pay after the war.

What were your co-workers like?

Except for the people at the very top it was a very young crew. But one of the reasons was that they could pay young people less. That was so in teaching also. They liked to see a big turnover. They would even eliminate a position for a certain amount of time just to get rid of somebody who had been there for quite a while. This was done all the time.

When we first worked there was not such thing, for instance, as a coffee break. And there was no such thing as leaving at five o'clock if there was still work to do. I stayed many a night until six o'clock or two o'clock on a Saturday because the work had to be done. You didn't get paid for that. There was no such thing as overtime. We were very used to long hours. I was used to working two nights a week until ten o'clock and every other weekend. And if I didn't work the full weekend, I would work Saturday one week and Sunday another week. So there was no such thing as a five day week.

Was sexual harassment ever a problem at work?

It certainly was. We had the head of circulation who bothered every single one of us. And when we went to the head of the library he just said that we were all imagining this -- that we were just frustrated, hungry females and that it was our fault. We knew we wouldn't get anywhere going to the head of the library, so we worked out a system in which we warned each other that this man was coming. For instance, when I went down to Biological Sciences, he would come down to see me. Well, one of the girls would pick up the phone and say so and so was coming down. Well that meant "Don't get yourself stuck in the stacks somewhere" and I wouldn't. I'd take the phone, and then I'd stay right there at the desk where he couldn't do anything.

In college we were taught that we should be able to handle both a career and a family. We knew it would be difficult, but we thought we had the brains to work it out, the brains and the energy and the expertise. So I think this was rather a blow after the war ended. I think that women after the war did not want to go home. They wanted a career. They worked during the war outside their homes and then in many cases they were fired and they had to go back to the home because the boys were coming back. They wanted the jobs for the men. I think we were trying to work for economic fairness and social acceptance of women in the work force. And, of course, the women said, "We were okay during the war effort. We're not now?"

Where were you when the war ended?

I was in class and of all places in a class studying German. During the war, I studied both German and Russian. This professor was elderly, and he started to cry and he said, "I am of German descent." But he was American in his feelings and he said, "I am very proud to tell you that the war has ended." And he cried. We all cried.

My brother returned safely. I am so grateful that he had the intelligence and the willpower to overcome what he had been through. For the first three months we really worried about him. His training had been intense. I went into his room one morning to pick up his clothes because my mother was going to wash. I opened the door and said, "Mike, " and he leaped out of bed and was in the corner, ready to spring on me. He said, "Don't you every do that again! I could have killed you."

How would you describe what the cause of the war was?

Well, I think that we kept the world from being conquered by the Nazis. I happen to consider the Nazis to be the most evil people who existed in this twentieth century. I'm fearful of anybody who thinks that he belongs to an elite race and if you don't belong to it then you can be eliminated. Friends I met at the University had been in concentration camps. What were their faults? Some of them were Jewish. Some of them were anti-Nazis. Some of them were very well educated people, but they didn't fit the mold.

Another thing the war taught me was to hang in there because those war years were difficult -- so difficult -- and you went day by day. But while you were doing that you didn't shirk your responsibilities. You functioned. We had to take our bad days as well as our good days.

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Copyright 1995