The photographs, posters, books, diaries, letters, and objects featured in this exhibition are a small selection from the collections held by the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America. They illustrate how periods of war have forced women to adapt to difficulties and confront atrocities and how they have expanded and transfigured women's role in society.
War has historically offered human beings an opportunity to transcend the limitations of ordinary life, to emerge from private concerns onto a larger stage, to test themselves in challenges unimagined in peace time, and to play a more significant and more honored role in the life of their communities. As men are drawn to such opportunities, so are women. This exhibition reveals the range of those opportunities and the enthusiasm with which women seized them. The wars of the last two centuries have provided women the chance to help change the course of history and in the process to change the image of themselves and their role in society.
The exhibition's title, "A Call to American Women: Responses to War," originates from a pamphlet issued in 1968 by Jeannette Rankin who, at age 87, remaining true to her principles as a lifelong pacifist, organized a march of five thousand women demanding withdrawal from the war in Vietnam. American women have heard the “call” and responded in a multitude of ways. Some, like Rankin, have been called to act for peace and disarmament and to protest against war and nuclear proliferation. Some have traveled to the battlefront, disguised themselves as men, or joined the armed forces. Many have been called to care for the wounded, to aid refugees at home and abroad, or to support the troops by providing entertainment and recreation.
There is no question, as these images and documents reveal, that women made their contributions to war and that war made its contributions to women, both to those who participated in war, and to those who, with equal dedication and selfsacrifice, resisted it. Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives, was the only member of Congress to vote against American entry into both the first and second World Wars; her acts created a precedent for Barbara Lee, the Congresswoman from California, who was equally alone in refusing to support today’s war in Afghanistan. Jane Addams, who also appears in this exhibition, led the opposition to American participation in World War I and in 1931 became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In the latter half of the 20th century, women activists, including politicians and writers, students and songwriters, have marched and lobbied against war and nuclear proliferation.
Rosie the Riveter represents thousands of women who went to work in war production factories, becoming welders and riveters in the aircraft, shipbuilding, and ordnance industries as men disappeared from factories into the armed services in the 1940s. As seen in this exhibition, Rosie had predecessors dating back at least to the Civil War when women in voluminous Victorian dresses filled cartridges at the United States Arsenal in Watertown.
Factory work is only one of many avenues followed by women in times of war. During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground Railroad conductor, and Sarah Edmonds acted as spies behind enemy lines while others raised millions of dollars to supply Northern troops. In this exhibition we see a group of young nurses who traveled by ocean liner to work in a Russian hospital in the First World War and the Assistant Secretary of Defense who visited GIs in Korea as a presidential envoy. Women war correspondents, wearing helmets and carrying canteens, traveled by jeep to the front lines in World War II to capture stories for American newspapers; WACs were shipped out to the battle front in 1943, their faces alight with excitement at their assignment.