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The Girls Next Door: How Serving Coffee and Donuts in World War I Led To Women Gaining the Right to Vote

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 22, 2024 3:04 am

The Girls Next Door: How Serving Coffee and Donuts in World War I Led To Women Gaining the Right to Vote

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 22, 2024 3:04 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Kara Dixon Vuic tells this remarkable story of service.

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I'm Katja Adler, host of The Global Story. Over the last 25 years I've covered conflicts in the Middle East, political and economic crises in Europe, drug cartels in Mexico. Now I'm covering the stories behind the news all over the world in conversation with those who break it. Join me Monday to Friday to find out what's happening, why and what it all means. Follow The Global Story from the BBC wherever you listen to podcasts. presented by AT&T.

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Start having the most fun ever at Shumba casino.com. And we return to our American stories. Up next, a story from Kara Dixon Vueck, a professor of war, conflict and society at Texas Christian University. She's also the author of The Girls Next Door, bringing the home front to the front lines. Let's get into the story.

Take it away, Kara. At a United Service Organization's benefit in October 2008, George W. Bush boldly declared, the moment things began to turn around in Iraq is when the USO deployed Jessica Simpson. When I saw that quote, I thought that's the most ludicrous thing I've ever heard in my life, right? You know, like how in the world could a pop singer have anything to do with military success or anything related to military strategy? And what I found out is that actually a lot of military officials have taken entertainment provided by women very, very seriously. It has a lot to do with soldier morale, the morale of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

But in other ways, it's less obvious. The military desperately wants women abroad to help sort of policemen's behavior, you know, that they're not running out, you know, getting drunk and acting like crazy people. But they're also worried about keeping soldiers from prostitutes. If you look at medical issues in World War I, short of the flu, the influenza is by far the largest medical issue.

After that, it's venereal disease, which couldn't be treated yet with a quick shot of penicillin. And so it really did cost the military man hours and was a very serious concern. And so what does Jessica Simpson or what does Emma Young Dixon in World War I or what do any of these women with the Salvation Army or the YMCA, what do they have to do with the war?

The thought was if we send women abroad, if they can interact with our doughboys in France, that that will remind the men of their mothers, their sisters, their sweethearts, their girlfriends at home, and that will inspire them to walk the straight and narrow. After the Civil War ended, the military itself reduced in size and primarily is stationed in places like what they would have called the frontier, right? Stationed in the West, these are the years of wars with Native Americans. They're far and away from the American public's mind, from their eye. They're not stationed in cities on the East Coast, right?

They're far away. And most Americans thought that enlisted soldiers, not necessarily officers, but enlisted men in particular, that those are kind of hard scrabble men, right? They do dirty work on the nation's behalf.

It's a hard life out there. If they got into a bit of trouble or they caused a ruckus, you know, as long as it didn't become a major issue beyond the fort or beyond the post, they were willing to sort of ignore it. They deserve to have a little bit of fun every now and then. And what I think really changed Americans' attitudes was conscription. Before conscription, it might be a problem out in the forts in the West, but those are somebody else's kids. That's somebody else's son.

That's somebody else's problem. When conscription came in, all of a sudden now this is your problem, right? Your son might be drafted, might possibly even be sent to France where, as everybody knew in World War I, that's just the center of world debauchery. And so all of a sudden now what happens in a military training camp is everybody's problem. So once the Americans enter World War I, you have an organization called the Commission on Training Camp Activities that forms and offers to help the military in home front training camps. They're doing things like sponsoring dances or sponsoring events where the soldiers can meet sort of respectable girls in a chaperoned environment. They're basically trying to provide all kinds of activities for these men to do to keep them out of trouble.

The problem for the American Expeditionary Force, sort of going abroad, is who is going to do this kind of work in France? This is sort of the quintessential era of organizations. People really belong to clubs that fit their values, and for the YMCA, it wasn't a gym. It was an organization that was trying to spread its religious values in the country. The same for the Salvation Army.

It was a religious organization. The Salvation Army in particular was working in urban areas, really trying to deal with issues of poverty and those kinds of things. And when the war came, these organizations see an opportunity to really have a sort of personal impact or personal relationship with these soldiers who are abroad.

Short of the Spanish-American War, this is the first time that's really happening on a massive scale. It is a big deal to Americans that we are sending boys, and of course there are always boys in the language, we're sending boys to France. We're sending them over here.

They're going to have this horrible experience, and we need to help mitigate that in some way. And so the YMCA in particular talks about sending home to the soldiers, right? We're going to create a home away from home.

We're going to send home with your boys. And so sending home meant creating these sort of clubs, these canteens, these physical spaces where, you know, doughboys could come, they could get a cup of hot coffee, they could get a doughnut, there might be a piano somebody's playing. It's just a space where they can get away from it a little bit.

And the hope on the part of the organizations was that they would go to these clubs instead of going to Paris, instead of going to a city. And key to all of these canteens were women. They are the ones who are going to interact with the doughboys. They are the ones who are going to sit down and talk to them about what they've been doing. And they are the ones who are going to serve them the coffee and the doughnuts and sew their buttons on and do all kinds of little, you know, little kinds of domestic chores in a sense for them. But the question then for these organizations is what kind of women? On one hand, you want them to sort of be this wholesome reminder of home and family. And at the same time, they're there to lure the men away from prostitution.

And so how does that work? They want women who are a bit older so that they're more mature, so that they can handle being away from home themselves, so that they can handle, you know, sort of the rough life of living in a war environment. But they can't be too old.

Then they won't remind these men of their sweethearts. They need to be women who they think are physically fit and strong enough to, you know, follow the troops on these wagons. Like they need to be hardy, right?

The word that they use. But they can't be too strong, too tough, or they don't seem feminine and soft. They're there as something that is an alternative to the dirtiness of the war, to the trenches, to all of that. And so you want a woman who's strong but not too strong. She needs to sort of look professional and put together, right? But not, I mean, they had a whole thing about the YMCA when these women would come in to interview if they were wearing too much rouge, if they were wearing too much makeup. That was a sign that those are not the women we want.

They're trying too hard. We don't want women who are all done up and made up and who are too concerned with their own appearance. But we still need them to be pretty because we're trying to keep these men from running to Paris.

So we want them to be a lure, right? We want them to be something that these men want to come see. They need to be friendly and welcoming. They need to make every single man who comes into that canteen feel special and wanted and welcomed. And remember that this is an era in which respectable sort of middle class white women are told you are not to make the first move. You are not to appear as though you're too open to men.

And yet everything about their work demands that they do that. And you've been listening to Cara Dixon Vueck, a professor of war, conflict and society at TCU. She's also the author of The Girls Next Door, bringing the home front to the front lines. More of this remarkable story, an untold story in large part here on Our American Stories. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA. He says somebody's in the house and I screamed.

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Here again is Cara. So Emma Young Dixon was from Montclair, New Jersey. She grew up in a very well-to-do family. Her father had actually worked with Andrew Carnegie and had resigned in protest over his treatment of workers. And he had founded a company called Midvale Steel. And Emma had grown up in a, I mean, just a gorgeous home. The family hosted soirees and parties, and they hosted what became the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.

You know, they were on the social pages of the New York Times, right? This is her upbringing. And when the war started, she volunteered with the Red Cross, sort of rolling bandages, doing the things that young women her age did, but she never felt that was enough. It always makes me laugh because she basically quotes the Howard Chandler Christie poster of the woman wearing the sailor's uniform.

And it says, gee, I wish I were a man. I joined the Navy. Emma actually wrote that in her diary that she wished she had been a man to have a small part in this great conflict. And so she kept trying. She volunteered. She took classes and first aid. She actually applied to the YMCA once to work in its canteen program, and they didn't accept her. And so she went back home.

She did some more volunteer work, applied again, and they accepted her. The first page of her diary starts with her getting on the boat in the New York Harbor, about to go to France. I mean, to me, I read it and I am like picturing a movie scene in my head that she's standing on this boat. She's crying. You know, she says she's very lost and teary.

It's raining. Her family is on the shore watching the ship pull away. She's holding a flower bouquet that her boyfriend had sent her. It's just this amazing scene of her leaving, going to France. And in that moment, to me, she seemed very vulnerable and very cautious and nervous. And as soon as the boat pulls away, she says she went down, she met her roommate, and that's it. And a couple of weeks later, they're at the French Harbor and she writes that four convoys had come out to escort her ship into the harbor. And she says, it seems so silly to be scared.

One can only die once anyway. And I thought, geez, Louise, in the course of her crossing in the Atlantic, she's developed this devil-may-care attitude and she's already a different person. When you look back on it, she's actually sort of in the heart of where a lot of the action with the doughboys occurred.

She's near Vaudencourt, France. And for the beginning of her time, she's really sort of working in the canteen, getting things set up and working with the doughboys when they come in. She's serving the cookies and the donuts and the coffee and all of that, and dancing with them and just trying to talk to them and make them feel at home. She also took with her a violin that she had been trained to play as a child. And she carried her violin around and played the violin for them. But Emma, she sets this canteen up and she's trying to coordinate that work with the officers of the AEF to make sure that they know what's going on and they get their men in here.

And so they have this event where they're sort of formally opening this canteen. The officers come in and it's a big deal and Emma gets up to make a speech. And she's very good at this. She's sort of self-deprecating. She talks about how nervous she is because of all the brass behind her on the stage. And then she talks to the doughboys and she's like, I am here for you.

I feel very little and incompetent measured up beside it. She feels very small given the big task ahead of her to help them through this war. And she characterizes her work as, you know, doing the things that their mothers and sisters would have done, right? She uses this language of like family. She's their sister. She's their mother. But it doesn't take her long to realize that those doughboys don't see her as their sister or their mother. They see her as a sweetheart, right?

Maybe not their sweetheart, but a potential sweetheart in some cases, or maybe sort of just this image of a sweetheart. And so she has guys who are regulars in the canteen who come to see her all the time. There's one guy who somehow got himself a motorcycle. I'm not sure how that happened, but he had a motorcycle and he would, he would bike into the canteen to visit her. And he, he one day came in and told her he was about to go to the front and he wanted to ask her something. And she wrote in her diary, she knew what he was going to ask and she didn't really want to hear it.

And he proposes marriage again. And she's, she just makes a joke out of it. She's like, I'm just too busy to get married right now. What she doesn't say is I'm a little tired of you. I wish you'd go away because she can't say that, right? She can't say anything that would make these men feel embarrassed or put out in any way.

Right. And so a lot of the women, Emma included, they develop all of these ways of sort of deflecting attention or of getting themselves out of situations that might turn into something more. A GI or dough boy walks them back to the house that they're billeted in and might try to kiss her on the cheek and she'll quickly go to the other side of the gate.

Like they have all of these tactics basically that they've developed to avoid those kinds of situations. At the same time that she really does value her friendship with these men, YMCA official came in one day and lectured all of the women, told them they were flirting with the officers and she was very offended by that. And she said flirting wasn't the same thing as being friendly.

There was a clear divide. She did not believe she had crossed that line, but she understood that there was a line and you're the one who has to police that line. Those are the kinds of things that women like Emma dealt with on a day to day basis. But it's still a long time, right?

It's still a long time away from home dealing with all of this. And yet when the third division gets moved to Chateau Thierry toward the end of what is eventually the end of the war, Emma is really annoyed that she can't go with them. And so eventually she was one of only 50 women who were sent that close to the war zone.

So she had some really interesting and unique experiences even as a lot of her story is emblematic of what a lot of women were experiencing. How do you explain, you know, what you did in the war? Well, I served donuts and I served coffee and I danced with doughboys, right? That on one level might not make sense or might need some explaining for people to really understand why it mattered and how important it was. From the military's perspective, does this win the war?

No. If you're thinking about morale and you're thinking about how this might have helped soldiers, helped the doughboys sort of process what they're doing, get them ready to go back home, then it's absolutely essential from the military's perspective. In the sort of lead up to World War II, it is an absolute given from the military's perspective that we are going to have these organizations again.

Similar organizations, the YMCA, the Salvation Army, but you've also got organizations like the Jewish Welfare Board, the National Catholic Community Service, who are also trying to help. And those are the organizations that eventually unite and form the USO, which offers entertainment in World War II and then afterward. And as women who have gone to war, that experience really sets them apart, not only from other women their age who have not gone to war and who have not seen the kinds of things that women like Emma saw, but it also sets them apart from men who did not go. When Woodrow Wilson sort of came out behind the Women's Suffrage Act, he did so explicitly citing women's wartime service. That rationale actually displeased a whole lot of women who had been fighting for women's suffrage for a very long time because their argument would have been that they are human beings and they deserve the right to vote as much as anybody else. The argument that won over Congress, however, won over Woodrow Wilson, was that women had done their part for the war effort. And so how can we ask them to serve in a war?

How can we ask them to support a war if we don't also give them the benefits of that citizenship? Right. That's ultimately what worked. And a terrific job on the production, editing and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery. And a special thanks to Cara Dixon-Vewick, author of The Girls Next Door Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines. And what a story in particular about Emma Young Dixon. I wish I were a man so I could have a small part in this large conflict, she once said. And when Woodrow Wilson spoke about women's suffrage and the passage of the amendment that gave the women the right to vote, he cited the work of the women during World War One, like Emma Young Dixon.

The story of the USO, how women served in our early wars right up through World War Two and to today here on Our American Stories. From BBC Radio 4, Britain's biggest paranormal podcast is going on a road trip. I thought in that moment, oh my God, we've summoned something from this board. This is Uncanny USA.

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