"When flags flew high": Propaganda, memory, and oral history for World War II female veterans
Ryan, Kathleen M.
During World War II, U.S. women responded to a call: "Free a man to fight." It was the first time women were officially welcomed as members of the military reserves, serving for the duration of the war plus six months before returning to their civilian lives. This dissertation fuses oral history interviews with a cultural studies analysis of media messages to understand the experiences and motivations of the women who served. It focuses on those who volunteered for the Navy (known as WAVES) and Coast Guard (referred to as SPARs). By investigating the women's memories alongside the government's intents, the dissertation, in effect, tests Stuart Hall's theory of encoding and V decoding. The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard engaged in a conscious pattern of encoding using various media messages, both civilian and government-sponsored, to construct a specific identity for female recruits. The women were consistently positioned in the media as more elite and refined than their counterparts in other service branches. The foundation of this construction was the couture-designed uniform, which the women often saved and recall in great detail. For their part, the women decoded these messages in often surprising ways. On one hand they affirmed the importance of their jobs and the elite nature of their service branch; conversely, "I didn't do anything important" is a common refrain. By looking at specific media sources (newsreels, recruitment posters, feature films, magazine photo essays), one can reach an understanding of the consistent and coordinated message the women received. Oral history, meanwhile, offers not only a platform to interrogate the women's memories of the era, but also provides the women with a way to reevaluate and reconsider their past. As a result, this dissertation not only investigates the effects of propaganda in the mid-20th century, but also casts a spotlight on a facet of the war largely ignored by mainstream historians.
- Theses and Dissertations