Lesbians, World War II and Beyond


WAAC poster[3]

When the United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941 Americans faced a new military threat on the home front. Unprecedented numbers of women emerged from the private sphere of the home or low end jobs into areas of the public realm previously only reserved for men.[1] This economic shift necessitated a dramatic reassessment of women’s role in American life and had a direct, multifaceted impact on the experiences of lesbian women.[2]

The Impact of World War II on Women

For the first time in history, the military began actively recruiting and integrating women into the armed services. In 1942, Congress passed a law allowing women into the Army, which in turn created the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).[4] The military had a vested interest in the work women could provide during war times. According to one Army official, “We have found difficulty in getting enlisted men to perform tedious duties anywhere nearly as well as women will do it."[5] The promise of active participation into military life in reality meant that many women found themselves serving in traditionally feminine jobs such as clerical and technical work.[6] This was particularly true for black WACs who were assigned the most menial jobs such as kitchen, housekeeping, and laundry duties and were confined stateside until 1945.[7]

The prolific entrance of some women into the army paralleled the movements of other women into nontraditional jobs in the civilian labor force. Women contributed more than one-third of the labor force during the war, and in 1944 nearly half of all adult women worked at one time or another.[8]
The need for full utilization of all resources during World War II brought large numbers of white, married women into the labor force and created opportunities for working class women and women of color to enter jobs previously denied to them.[10] Despite media campaigns showing middle class women turning in their aprons for overalls, the majority of women who entered the war production industry were working class women who had extensive pre-war work experience. For working class women the war drained the labor force of male laborers in fields that paid higher wages and offered more stimulating work than traditional female occupations and for many woman, had the potential for union representation.[11] Black women’s employment became slightly more diversified as many managed to leave domestic service for commercial service or factory work that paid more and had greater job stability.[12]

World War II Workers[9]


Lesbian Women on the Home Front

Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, written by Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis in 1994, is perhaps the most significant piece of work available that describes the experiences of lesbian women during World War II. The book is a result of 14 years of collaborative research and interviews between the authors and the 45 “narrators” of the story. Narrators remember World War II as having a tremendous impact on lesbian life by offering lesbians more opportunities for socializing and meeting other women.[13] This was not because lesbians suddenly gained access to the job market; many had been working since their teens.

The narrators of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold felt that the important effect of the war was that it gave more independence to all women, thereby making lesbians more like other women and less easy to identify. Since all women were able to wear pants to work and to purchase them in stores off the rack, butches who only wore pants in the privacy of their home in the 1930s could now wear them on the streets.[15] For most of the narrators, who live in Buffalo , the army had little to offer. Buffalo was a thriving industrial center made even more so by the presence of war production and lesbians had ample opportunities for high-paying jobs. They had active social lives and with the men away in the war, they had more opportunity to be with women in the public world.[16]


World War II Factory Workers[14]

The changes associated with World War II for women in general and specifically for lesbians manifested themselves in the proliferation of lesbian bars and the extensive social life that developed around them. Many straight women even went out to the bars for an evening of fun; some of who became regulars and developed temporary lesbian relationships until their husbands returned from the war.[17] While the gay bars began to proliferate during World War II, in the 1940s the mere presence of homosexuals was interpreted by the State Liquor Authority as constituting disorderly conduct. Gay bars, therefore, had to walk a fine line between allowing their gay patrons to express themselves enough to feel comfortable and continue patronizing the bar and not allowing so much gay behavior that it would attract attention from the public and the police.[18] However, in the 1940s, gay bars were opened primarily as business enterprises rather than with sympathy or concern for gay clientele and the owners were experienced business owners who were able to walk that line successfully leading to very few raids by the mid 1940s.[19]