The Trailblazing Women of WWII
The following are the prepared remarks for a speech GCW Chair Karla Jacobs gave to the Creative Arts Study Club in Gainesville, Georgia on November 8, 2018.
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to your study club today. It’s always a pleasure to be back in Gainesville and to see dear friends who were important to me growing up and still are today. I was thrilled when Mrs. Lovett ask me to come. This is not the first time she has wrangled me into a speaking engagement. In 1984, her class assignment (she was my 9th grade English teacher) landed me in the Optimist Club speech competition. At this point, I don’t remember how I did; I just remember that I did it.
I want to talk to you today about some of the things my organization, the Georgia Commission on Women, is doing, but I also want to talk to you about the women who broke barriers in the mid-20th century and opened the door for the women of my generation. The foundation they made is what a lot of our work is built on. They proved women were every bit as capable as men are, and their legacy has been true equality for our daughters. I love to talk about history and I love to talk about books, so I’m going to do a little of both today.
The Georgia Commission on Women was created in 1992 by legislation from the General Assembly that was signed by then Governor Zell Miller. There are 15 commissioners appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House. They each get five appointments to the commission. We serve in staggered four-year terms. Our members are from across the state. Our youngest member just turned 40, and our oldest member is about to turn 86.
Our mandate from the legislature is very broad. We are to monitor and report on the status of women in Georgia and celebrate their accomplishments however we see fit. We’ve done lots of different things over the years. We wrote a report on Women and the Law in the 1990’s that highlighted different ways Georgia laws impact women. We have been very active in osteoporosis prevention and education in the past. Currently we are focusing on three main areas—human trafficking, different women’s health initiatives, and early literacy with the Department of Public Health’s Talk With Me Baby program.
The Commission has been a member of the statewide human trafficking task force since the very beginning of that task force, and the vice-chair and I sit on the task force on behalf of the commission. We also work with other advocates like Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols who leads what he calls the Unholy Tour which is an educational bus tour for legislators and advocates through the neighborhoods in metro Atlanta most affected by sex trafficking.
The Talk With Me Baby program is really cool. It is based on research into early brain development that found the brain grows neural pathways at a tremendous rate from birth to three years old. It is the largest jump in brain development that we will ever have in our lives. It is the prime time when language acquisition occurs, and the more the brain is used, the more neural pathways form. We also know that the children with the largest vocabularies at age three are more prepared for kindergarten at age five and are more likely to be reading on grade level by 3rd grade.
In the 1990’s, social science researchers found that children in families who are low income hear 30 million fewer words by age three than those in higher income families. The resulting difference in vocabulary affects kindergarten readiness. That gap is significant enough that it affects reading level at 3rd grade, which is an early indicator of graduating from high school.
After putting all this research together, Talk With Me Baby was developed to teach all new parents about the importance of talking to their babies. They don’t need any special books or equipment they just need to talk to them and model the back and forth of conversation. The program was initially rolled out through WIC clinics throughout the state, so counselors could teach about the importance of talking to babies and model that behavior for mothers who come to the clinics. It is now also available through hospitals that have received the training.
We are looking at expanding our reach in the coming years. We lost our funding during the recession and were just able to restore it this year. Having funds is huge for us and our ability to do more in the state.
One of the things we are very conscious of is that we are building on a foundation that was laid by the women who came before us. We have women on the commission who have spent their lives pushing for equality in the workplace and before the law. Did you know that Georgia did not ratify the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote until 1970? Women were able to vote because of federal voting laws, but Georgia did not formally recognize that right until the year I was born. Also, I’m told up until the 1960’s there was a footnote added to some Georgia laws that read something like “The above does not apply to women, idiots, or children.” Thankfully, that’s long gone.
One of our members was one of the first African Americans to integrate the University of Georgia. It has been humbling to serve side by side with women who made history in our state.
We owe the women who were the trailblazers a debt of gratitude for the work they did. The World War II years saw women enter the workforce in record numbers as they took jobs in the factories to free up men to fight overseas. We’ve all seen the images of Rosie the Riveter calling women to factories and shipyards across the nation.
Women also served in niche industries as well, and I’d like to talk about three key ones today and share with you recent books that have come out about them.
How many of you have seen the movie “Hidden Figures”? It’s based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The story follows Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as they broke down race and gender barriers on the way to some of NASA’s greatest successes.
During World War II, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor of NASA, needed to staff up quickly with mathematicians to do the complex math calculations the engineers needed. What we would do today with a hand-held calculator, these women did meticulously by hand using slide rules and lots of paper. Remember, this was before the big IBM mainframe computers that took up an entire room. Every calculation had to be done by hand.
NACA turned to women to fill this role, both white women and black women. As we will talk about in a minute, they were competing with other government agencies at the time for highly skilled women. NACA recruiters targeted schoolteachers in particular. At that time, employment opportunities for both women and African Americans were limited, so most college graduates in these groups became high school teachers. Remember also this was during the Jim Crow era in the South, so black teacher pay wasn’t great and schools were segregated. A job teaching school was considered a very good job in the black community, but the NACA computer jobs were an unheard of opportunity for the women who took them.
The NACA facilities in Langley, Virginia were segregated. The black computers had offices in a separate building from the white computers, they had to use different restrooms and water fountains, and they were required to sit at assigned tables in the cafeteria. Some of my favorite scenes from both the book and the movie were the ones where the barriers started to crumble. In one scene, Miriam Mann, offended by the “colored table” sign in the cafeteria, began slipping the sign into her purse every day. A day or two later, a new sign would appear, and she would slip it into her purse again. This continued until the sign-maker finally gave up, and the women sat wherever they wanted. Langley eventually fully desegregated.
In the epilogue, Shetterly tells us “Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.” And they did. Dorothy Vaughn became the first African American woman to be a supervisor at Langley, Mary Jackson became the first African American woman to be an engineer anywhere, and Katherine Johnson personally hand-calculated all the trajectories of John Glenn’s mission to be the first American to orbit the earth. He didn’t trust the mainframe computers and asked specifically that she be the one to do the math.
These trailblazers at what became the NASA space program not only improved job prospects for women, they improved job prospects for African Americans, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
Another group of women of this generation made contributions that were vital to the United States’ victory in World War II. They were the women who broke coded messages for the Army and the Navy. Liza Mundy captured their stories in her book ‘Code Girls.’
Again, this was the time before computers, so each encoded enemy message had to be evaluated individually by hand. More than 10,000 women served as cryptographers, or code breakers, and they spent 12 hour days staring at columns of numbers looking for patterns. I cannot imagine how incredibly tedious that would be.
The Army and the Navy had separate code breaking units, creating all the kinds of tension you would imagine. They recruited from different populations—the Navy recruited from the Seven Sisters women’s colleges of the Ivy League, and like NACA, the Army recruited schoolteachers. They asked potential recruits, “Do you like doing crossword puzzles? Do you have imminent wedding plans? Can you keep a secret?” Recruits were picked based on their studies in history, English, math, foreign languages, and astronomy. They lived in barracks or the dormitories of colleges pressed into giving up their facilities for the program. All were located in the Washington, DC area.
There was an urgency to their work, and they worked under extreme secrecy. They couldn’t even tell their closest friends and family what they were doing, and they understood that they could be executed for spilling secrets about the program. They did not speak about their work for decades, and many of their families never knew what they did during the war.
Code girls assigned to the European theater worked in conjunction with their British counterparts at Bletchley Park decoding German messages from the famous Enigma machine. The 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” tells the story of how the British, led by Alan Turing, broke the Enigma code. The ladies in the U.S. had a replica of the Enigma machine that they were able to use to break codes once they found the correct settings for the machine in the messages. The messages would contain a bit of code that told the recipient how to set the machine to decode the message.
The team working the Pacific theater had to just muscle their way through the codes by shear will. There was no machine to help them. The codes would change from time to time, so they had to keep breaking the codes over and over again. However, they became so proficient at it they intercepted battle plans and disrupted Japanese supply lines. Their work was key in the victory at the Battle of the Midway in 1942. The U.S. Navy had advance notice, thanks to the work of the code girls, and they surprised the Japanese by having the aircraft carriers, Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise, nearby to engage in the battle. It was a lopsided victory and a turning point in the war in the Pacific.
In 1942, only 4 percent of American women had completed four years of college, and job opportunities for female college graduates were scarce before the war. As Mundy says, “It was a rare moment in American history—unprecedented—where educated women were not only wanted but competed for.” At the end of the war a number of female code breakers went on to higher posts in the National Security Agency, but most left, got married, and raised families.
The last group I want to talk about has been in the news a few times in recent years as they have been successful in their requests to be buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. These are the WASP—Women Air Service Pilots—of World War II. Remember Rosie the Riveter who built planes for the war effort? Somebody had to fly those planes from the factory to military bases all over the U.S., and the WASP were created to do just that.
Fannie Flagg, one of my favorite southern authors, wrote a very good novel called “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.” I love the structure of it. There are two story lines—one in the present and one in the past—that kind of dance around each other until they meet up toward the end. The protagonist, Sukie Poole, is delightful. She has married off three daughters in a year’s time, and she is tired, y’all. The Jurdabralinski sisters, whom we meet in the timeline in the past, are firecrackers, and the WASP play a major role. If you enjoy historical fiction, this one is definitely for you.
There were slightly more than 1,100 WASP, but they flew more than 50 percent of the combat aircraft in the United States from 1942 when they were created to 1944 when they were disbanded. They even flew planes towing targets for target practice with live ammunition. Thirty-eight WASP pilots were killed in training and on missions. It was dangerous work.
Unlike the code girls and the mathematicians we talked about earlier, the WASP did not operate under a veil of secrecy. The public knew about the program, but perhaps not widely. The women were hired to free up men to fly combat aircraft overseas. However, once the war started winding down in Europe, male pilots who were working stateside as trainers began to worry that they would be drafted into combat units for the Pacific push.
Public perception of the WASP mission changed, and where they were once viewed as freeing men to fight, they were now seen as taking away jobs that rightfully belonged to men. The program was disbanded in 1944, and the women went back home. WASP records were classified and sealed from the public until the 1970’s when Jimmy Carter finally recognized the WASP, granting them veterans status for their service. In 2016 WASP won the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The interesting thing to me about this era is how, for the first time, women were wanted and actively recruited for professional jobs that before had been considered only appropriate for men. I mean, women even took over professional baseball while the men were away at war. Have you all seen “A League of Their Own”? Professional baseball scouts recruited women from across the country to play in the professional baseball league, and they did a good job of it.
The Langley computers proved women could go toe to toe with men in engineering and mathematics, the code girls proved they had the aptitude and tenacity to break enemy codes, and the WASP proved they could fly the big combat planes as well, and sometimes better, than the men did. They all had added pressure, though. They had to be better at their jobs with character beyond reproach to prove they belonged there in a way the men didn’t have to.
One of my favorite scenes from “A League of Their Own” is a montage of the comportment classes the ball players had to go through. We see them learning to walk gracefully, sit and cross their ankles modestly, and use proper etiquette at the table. Men would never have been asked to do that sort of thing. They may be doing a man’s job, but they still had to be first and foremost a lady.
We laugh at this now—my generation rolls our eyes pretty hard—but the women who were the trailblazers at this time had to put up with a lot. In speaking about the gender and racial prejudice she encountered at Langley, Dorothy Vaughn said, “What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured.” When the men came home from war, the women who had staffed the factories, boatyards, baseball fields, and airplanes were expected to go back home and make way for the men. They sort of did, but they really didn’t. Like the song from World War I says, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?”
Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, makes a cameo appearance in ‘The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.’ The WASP paved the way for her trip into space. They proved women could fly military planes, and then she flew one into space. Just like the women of Hidden Figures and Code Girls broke down barriers for women in engineering and mathematics. My 16-year-old daughter wants to be an engineer, and she knows there is nothing stopping her.
And so we owe a debt of gratitude to these women, the pioneers who showed us what was not only possible but completely doable.
And we will continue to build on their foundation.
Thank you so much again for inviting me to talk to you. I think we have a few minutes left, and I’ll be glad to take questions about the work we are doing on the Georgia Commission on Women and the Human Trafficking Task Force or the women we’ve talked about this morning.