Single-family suburban homeownership was the American ideal for the growing middle-class in the postwar years. This was “the most visible symbol of having arrived at a fixed place in society,” historian Kenneth Jackson suggests, “the goal to which every decent family aspired.”[i]
A still image taken in August 1949 demonstrates the “assembly line procedure” undertaken by the real estate development firm Levitt & Sons in Nassau County, New York. Prospective home buyers flocked to meet with salesmen at the first table, clerks and typists at the second, and, finally, Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and Veteran’s Administration (VA) representatives at the third. According to the Levittown Public Library, six hundred and fifty people received titles on that day alone
World War II veteran Eugene Burnett lined up, too, only to be turned away. In an interview with New York Times
columnist Bruce Lambert in 1997, Burnett recalled what the Levitt & Sons salesman told him fifty years before: “‘you see . . . the owners of this development have not as yet decided whether they’re going to sell these homes to Negroes.’” Burnett lamented that “the feeling of rejection” still stung.[iii]
Local zoning ordinances coupled with FHA redlining—the discriminatory practice of withholding or denying loans and services to residents in high risk neighborhoods—explicitly barred African Americans and other minorities from engaging in the bustling postwar housing economy. The language written into property deeds, lending contracts, and mutual agreements further cemented the exclusivity and monochromatic hue of postwar middle-class neighborhoods.[iv]
Other characteristics of conformist postwar American suburbia were the gendered features of, and gendered roles within, the domicile itself. In Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era
, Elaine Tyler May confirms that Americans wholeheartedly embraced the gendered dualisms of breadwinner and father, and homemaker and mother as fundamental to postwar prosperity. “Educated middle-class women, whose career opportunities were severely limited, hoped that the home would become not a confining place of drudgery, but a liberating arena of fulfillment through professionalized homemaking, meaningful child rearing, and satisfying sexuality.”[v]
A March 1949 Ladies’ Home Journal
article associated the American housewife with the following descriptors: “the nurturer, the creator of childhood’s environment,” and “the constant recreator of culture, civilization, and virtue,” highlighting what economic historian Jan de Vries identifies as the “breadwinner-homemaker household.”[vi]
Households with even modest postwar incomes were more likely to spend their money than to save it. May calculates that between 1947 and 1961, the total number of American families rose 28 percent, national income increased over 60 percent, and the number of households with discretionary income doubled. Within five years of the war, consumer spending on household furnishings and appliances rose a staggering 240 percent, aided, in part, by a hawkish advertising industry marketing consumer goods as manufacturers shifted out of wartime production.[vii]
If this degree of conformity was the postwar standard, why was the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (WASIA) signed into law, effectively permitting women to serve in the military in perpetuity? At a moment when predominantly white middle-class women and their families began the exodus from bustling American cities to cushy quiet suburbia—a trend widely encouraged by the confluence of women’s magazines, the advertising industry and the accessibility to federally-backed mortgage loans—the government permitted women to shirk, albeit temporarily, the virtues of homemaking and motherhood for a career in the military.
Providing nuance to the idea that all
mid-century American women chose motherhood and suburbia, women like Captain Joy Bright Hancock and her allies dedicated their lives to the continued success of women in the Navy. Their activism ushered in occupations and careers that challenged pronatalist Cold War social norms that encouraged biological motherhood and conspicuous consumerism. By restricting the types of billets available to women, narrowly limiting their age of enlistment, and honorably discharging pregnant sailors, however, Navy and government officials continued to expect that women sailors would remain in the postwar Navy only for a limited time, before their destined retreat to suburbia, homemaking, and motherhood.
Two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers telephoned Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz and inquired of his willingness, as chief of the Bureau of Navigation, to sponsor a bill that would establish a woman’s branch within the Navy akin to that of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC).[viii]
Recalling the conversation with Joy Bright Hancock years later, Nimitz remembered, “I advised Mrs. Rogers that at the present time I saw no great need for such a bill, but at the same time I told her that there were undoubtedly some positions that could be filled by members of such a corps.”[ix]
Although he avoided answering the congresswoman directly, he solicited the opinions of every Navy bureau chief within days of the call with Rogers. He ordered the chiefs to submit their judgements to the Bureau of Personnel. It was unlikely that Nimitz was suddenly overcome by a bout of altruistic feminism. Instead, Hancock opined, Nimitz feared the congressional creation of a women’s reserve on their
terms—not one carefully planned by Navy officials.[x]
“This fear,” she remarked in her memoir, “rather than any firm conviction as to the need of women, moved [him] to action, reluctant though [he] was.”[xi]
The statements provided by the bureau chiefs were about as feminist as one might expect for late 1941. From the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, a terse: “Do not visualize a need.” From the Office of the Judge Advocate General, an obtuse: “No use for the services of Women’s Auxiliary is seen at this time.” From the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the Bureau of Aeronautics (BuAer), however, the responses were of enthusiastic support. BuAer predicted that womanpower would be necessary to replace manpower in technical and skilled positions as men and material scattered across the globe. While it would take seven months and many revisions, the final legislation establishing the Navy’s women’s reserve, Public Law 689, received President Franklin Roosevelt’s signature on 30 July 1942.[xii]
The law allotted some parity between the sexes relative to pay, benefits, and clothing allowances. Although ranks and ratings corresponded with the men of the regular Navy, the law did not permit Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) to serve outside the United States or aboard vessels and combat aircraft. While teenage boys under the age of eighteen required parental approval to enlist, the law set the minimum age for women enlistment at twenty. Of all the provisions, Section 508 proved the most challenging in the long term as it set the “duration of authority,” extending the women’s reserve only six months beyond the end of hostilities. When Emperor Hirohito signed the documents of surrender on 2 September 1945, the expiration of the WAVES program loomed.[xiii]
Victory in the Pacific warranted a dramatic decrease in personnel, or so the American public demanded. Operation Magic Carpet famously ferried, by one estimation, over 22,222 American personnel every day between September 1945 and September 1946.[xiv]
One overlooked aspect of demobilization, however, involved the laborious work of dismantling and inventorying components of American bases and outposts abroad. Within months of VJ Day, it became apparent to Navy officials that the rapid repatriation of sailors left a substantial shortage in trained personnel to deconstruct the many advanced bases that dotted the Pacific Ocean (Tables 1 and 2).
Number of Personnel Returned to U.S. by Carrier Division 24 (SEP 1945 – MAR 1946)
Source: Commander Carrier Division 24 to the Chief of Naval Operations, Commander Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, memorandum, “Carrier Division 24; Report of Operations and Dissolution of.
” March 15, 1946, Box 224, Post-1946 Reports, Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.
Number of Personnel Returned to U.S. by Task Group 16.12 (MAR 1946 – AUG 1946)
Source: Commander Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet to the Chief of Naval Operations and Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, memorandum, “Task Group SIXTEEN POINT TWELVE (MAGIC CARPET)–Operations and Dissolution of.
” September 17, 1946, Box 318, Post-1946 Reports, Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, DC.
The Navy’s Operation Roll-Up initiated such a clean-up campaign. The dismantling of advance bases in the Pacific required “manpower fully qualified, and in sufficient number, to efficiently classify, handle, process, and ship material and equipment” back to the United States. According to the operation history, “the inactivation of Base components failed to keep pace with rapid reduction in officers and men.” The report continued, “As an example of too-rapid demobilization, the record discloses that for many months in 1946, and early 1947, the Base Supply Annex on Calicoan Island [Samar] was manned by 3 officers and 150 enlisted, whereas its former allowance as a Naval Supply Depot was 126 officers and over 5,000 enlisted!”[xv]
(Table 3) From the perspective of the American taxpayer, officials concluded, “it was desirable to rapidly reduce the federal payrolls by returning service personnel to civilian life as quickly as possible.” To solve the personnel deficiency in the immediate, the Navy contracted Luzon-based Filipino stevedores “to assist in the identification, inventory, storage, recrating, and reboxing of materials and equipment.” Between VJ Day and 15 July 1947, the Operating Base in Leyte-Samar calculated paying over $20 million in direct wages for 25 million hours of civilian labor and 8 million hours of civilian contractor work.[xvi]
Had American taxpayers been aware, they likely would have preferred those wages rest in the hands of sailors, and eventually funneled into the domestic economy upon their return to the states.
Naval Personnel Statistics (Ship Repair Facilities at Manicani Island, Leyte Gulf)
Source: Commander Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, “Operation Roll-Up”: The History of Surplus Property Disposal in the Pacific Ocean
(Washington, DC: Navy Department, 1948), IV-11, microfiche, F-29, Navy Department Library, Washington, DC.
Even before the close of World War II, the siren song of homemaking, conspicuous consumption, and family had permeated the American consciousness. As historian Kate Brown documents, some of the most powerful men overseeing the production of plutonium “worried a great deal about housing, shopping, school, and recreational programs” as early as 1943 in Richland, Washington. Adjacent to reactors, these titans of industry had real estate manufacturers construct outwardly-appearing middle-class tract homes for their “young, affluent, fully employed, and medically monitored” working-class employees and their families. This planned community, according to Brown, equated physical and financial “security with white middle-class families in a new upscale, exclusive bedroom community bankrolled by generous federal subsidies.”[xvii]
This socio-economic trend toward middle-class upward mobility only continued into the postwar era.
A “consumers’ republic,” with the postwar power of mass consumerism elevating social and economic classes, U.S. capitalism was a symbolic alternative to the communist deprivation present in the Soviet Union. Homeownership rates between 1940 and 1960 increased from 44 percent to 63 percent, making the domicile “the quintessential mass consumer commodity.”[xviii]
According to data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau, the Department of Labor, and the Department of Commerce, construction crews broke ground on an astonishing 1 million homes across America in 1949—nearly five times the number recorded in 1945. The following year, in 1950, homebuilders broke records again, laying foundations for an additional 1.4 million “victory homes.” The majority were single-family tract-style residences in urban and rural nonfarm locations.[xix]
This postwar housing boom was as much a result of an expanding housing industry as it was the economic reach of the federal government. Postwar GI benefits allowed veterans to purchase homes with no money down, and citizens without military service could access 30-year mortgages with as little as five percent down. “Owning was often cheaper than renting,” writes historian Adam Rome. By guaranteeing loans, the federal government also aided builders in accessing the capital necessary to operate on a larger scale.[xx]
U.S. Homeownership Rates, 1940-1970
Sources: F. John Devaney, “Ownership Rates, by Race and Hispanic Origin: 1940 to 1990,” table, in Tracking the American Dream, 50 Years of Housing History from the Census Bureau: 1940 to 1990
(Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1994), 29; United States Census Bureau, “Homeownership Rates,” table, October 8, 2021, accessed May 3, 2023, https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial/tables/time-series/coh-owner/owner-tab.txt
Most returning GIs, about 40 percent of the male population, and their sweethearts could generally rely on federal benefits—the financial support of a federally-backed mortgage loans with no money down—to purchase their family home.[xxi]
There were a number of women sailors, however, determined to remain on active duty and not merely as reservists called up in an emergency. Joy Bright Hancock, in her role as Assistant Director (Plans) of the Women’s Reserve, found that her position allowed her the latitude to find a permanent place for women in the Navy. Not only was Hancock ideally placed in the organizational structure to affect institutional change, but Hancock herself embodied what the Navy ultimately sought in its female recruits. Hancock was one of the 11,275 yeomen (F) who enlisted during World War I.[xxii]
While she did leave the service “to take up the role of Navy wife” in 1924, adhering to a personnel policy that barred married women from active duty, she reentered the Navy the following year after the death of her husband.[xxiii]
A commander at age 47, unmarried with no known romantic attachments and no dependents, Hancock was a woman clearly dedicated to the Navy. Womanpower like that exhibited by Hancock was an underutilized source of human capital in a continuously shrinking service, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz told the Senate Committee on Armed Services. “Since this is true,” he continued, “it is essential that a permanent nucleus of women be maintained in the Regular Navy.”[xxiv]
In short, rapid demobilization and the resulting manpower shortage was the force that helped to compel the establishment of a permanent place for women in the Navy.
At the Naval Air Station (NAS) Banana River, Florida, for example, the commanding officer had
to incorporate womanpower “because of the loss of many men owing to demobilization.” The unidentified officer told Hancock that the women sailors readily absorbed training and instruction, and were efficient equipment operators.[xxv]
According to the air station’s official history, the Airbomber Training Unit had the first and, at the time of publication, only WAVES assigned as instructors in 7A-3 and Mark II Bombing and Dead Reckoning trainers. Trained on site, women instructors received the same Sp(X) rating as men.[xxvi]
Hancock observed the women at Banana River direct “the movements of aircraft, manned by pilots simulating blindness, so that a safe approach to a runway could be made under conditions approaching zero visibility.”[xxvii]
The situation Hancock witnessed at Banana River exemplified how the retention of trained WAVES could meet the needs of domestic shore establishments and release available male sailors for deployments and base consolidation operations overseas.
Average Strength, Women in the Navy, 1944-1953
Source: Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Eighty-Seventh Annual Report of the Surgeon General of the United States Navy: Medical Statistics for the Calendar Year 1951
(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1954), 180.
Joy Bright Hancock was the ideal spokeswoman to promote women’s permanency in the Navy, and the military more broadly. She based her advocacy “on the major premise that women in the service should, insofar as practical, fit into the structure already in existence for men.”[xxviii]
Hancock and her allies did not intend to upend the organization of military service, but rather seamlessly incorporate women into the existing structure. Effectively providing a permanent place for women in the Navy, the Army, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act went through substantial revisions before the final version passed both houses of Congress and President Harry Truman signed it into law in June 1948. Controversy over WASIA centered not on the continued presence of women in the services—that was acceptable. Rather, ideological disagreements concentrated on parity between the sexes. In language emulating its legislative predecessor that established the WAVES program, WASIA provisions relating “to pay, leave, money allowances for subsistence and rental of quarters, mileage and other travel allowances, or other allowances, benefits, or emoluments” mandated parity between men and women.[xxix]
Differences, however, abounded.
Some of these differences reflected the government’s understanding and acceptance of the broader social expectations that women would eventually leave the service for motherhood, and that young adult women remained under the protection of their parents. While men over the age of eighteen could enlist freely, for example, women between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one could not enlist “without the written consent of [their] parents or guardians.”[xxx]
As historian Tanya Roth suggests, this clause implied that young adult women were not seen as capable of making a career decision of such significance.[xxxi]
With the enactment of WASIA, the government identified twenty-one as the age at which point a woman could make the personal decision to join the military. Further, any woman who became pregnant while on active duty, regardless of their marital status, was to be “discharged for the convenience of the Government under honorable conditions.” This prohibition, Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague confirmed to the Senate Committee on Armed Services, was “applicable to women only.”[xxxii]
Despite the equitable roles played in the creation of offspring, the Navy never initiated an equivalent policy for the male sailors who impregnated their partners. The justification for the different treatment of women in these instances centered on the gendered perceptions of parenthood. With the breadwinner-homemaker model as the ideal standard to which women should strive, Americans placed a tacit expectation on women to provide around-the-clock childcare. Policies dismissing pregnant servicewomen only reinforced the social importance placed on motherhood and homemaking.
At a time in American history when a substantial percentage of young families began to settle in suburbia, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act provided a permanent place for women in the Navy, the Army, the Marines, and the Air Force. The passage of this legislation was less a result of feminist demands for parity with men and more the product of exigency and manpower (in)efficiency resulting from the drawdown of soldiers and sailors in Europe and the Pacific. Hancock commented in her memoir that the continued training of women reserve personnel “would have justified itself . . . during the period in which demobilization was being carried out and property was being disposed of or stored.”[xxxiii]
The legislation was also fortunate in timing as well, with manning and budget shortfalls more in mind than later Cold War concerns regarding social disruptions and the domestic communist threat as highlighted in the McCarthy-era.
While WASIA incorporated substantial limitations on women—including capping the number of enlistees to two percent of the total enlisted Navy force, and women officers to ten percent of the authorized number of enlisted women—this legislation nevertheless expanded the occupations available to women beyond what was available in the private sector. The Navy placed particular emphasis on rating specialties in aviation support for women as navigation instructors, control tower operators, and mechanics because of the success BuAer had in incorporating women into their ranks during the war.[xxxiv]
The proficiency of the WAVES to meet the needs of wartime service, coupled with the unwavering advocacy of Captain Joy Bright Hancock, who made Navy service a lifelong career, ensured that women maintained a permanent place in the Navy.
Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 50.
Eugene Burnett quoted in Bruce Lambert, “At 50, Levittown Contends With Its Legacy of Bias,” New York Times
(December 28, 1997); Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America
(New York: Liveright, 2017), 68-69, 70-72, 75.
The federal government relented only in the 1970s after two decades of domestic social change, opening lending opportunities to poor and working-class Black families in urban and low-income neighborhoods. Rothstein, The Color of Law
, 44, 50, 54, 64, 67, 70, 77-91; Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019), 31-37; Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap
, revised and updated ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2016), xxix, 50-51, 63, 70, 71.
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era
, 20th anniversary ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 23, 25; Coontz, The Way We Never Were
Dorothy Thompson, “Occupation—Housewife,” Ladies’ Home Journal
, March 1949 reprinted in Nancy A. Walker, Women’s Magazines, 1940-1960: Gender Roles and the Popular Press
(Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1998), 164; Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 186-237.
May, Homeward Bound
Joy Bright Hancock, Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972), 50; Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee, A Few Good Women: America’s Military Women from World War II to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
(New York: Anchor Books, 2011), 37.
Chester Nimitz quoted in Hancock, Lady in the Navy
Monahan and Neidel-Greenlee, A Few Good Women
Hancock, Lady in the Navy
An Act to Expedite the War Effort by Releasing Officers and Men for Duty at Sea and Their Replacement by Women in the Shore Establishment of the Navy, and for Other Purposes, Pub. L. No. 77-689, 56 Stat. 730 (July 30, 1942); Hancock, Lady in the Navy
The War Department implemented a points system—the Advance Service Rating Score (ASRS)—to return servicemen to the United States. Servicemen accrued points for time served abroad, combat duty, and awards for special services. Collin Makamson, “‘Home Alive by ‘45’: Operation Magic Carpet,” The National WWII Museum, last modified October 2, 2020, accessed April 26, 2023, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/operation-magic-carpet-1945
; Hancock, Lady in the Navy
Commander Service Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, “Operation Roll-Up”: The History of Surplus Property Disposal in the Pacific Ocean
(Washington, DC: Navy Department, 1948), microfiche, F-29, Navy Department Library, Washington, DC.
Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 3, 7.
Lizabeth Cohen, Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America
(New York: Vintage, 2008), 195; United States Census Bureau, “Homeownership Rates,” table, October 8, 2021, accessed May 3, 2023, https://www2.census.gov/programs-surveys/decennial/tables/time-series/coh-owner/owner-tab.txt
; Coontz, The Way We Never Were
Adam Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 16; Rothstein, The Color of Law
Not all GIs could access VA housing benefits. As author Richard Rothstein confirms, the VA required properties funded with their mortgages include “racial covenant” clauses in their contracts which explicitly prohibited the owner from selling to African Americans. The Color of Law
, xi, 69, 78-79, 85; Taylor, Race for Profit
, 35; Coontz, The Way We Never Were
, 89, 94-98.
Hancock, Lady in the Navy
[xxiv] Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1947: Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services
, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. (1947) (statement of C. W. Nimitz), 13. Navy Department Library, Washington, DC.
Hancock, Lady in the Navy
John H. Montgomery, “History of Naval Air Station Banana River, Florida,” May 11, 1945, WWII War Diaries, Record Group 38, National Archives and Records Administration.
Hancock, Lady in the Navy
[xxix] Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1947
, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. (1947), 8. Navy Department Library, Washington, DC.
Tanya L. Roth, Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2021), 37.
“The Secretary of War, under such regulation as he may prescribe, may terminate the enlistment of any enlisted woman in the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1947: Hearings Before the Committee on Armed Services
, 80th Cong., 1st Sess. (1947) (statement of T. L. Sprague), 96, 97. Navy Department Library, Washington, DC.
Hancock, Lady in the Navy