Disruption of the Ideals of Domesticity During WWII
WWII caused dramatic and rapid shifts to take place within the realm of traditional domestic ideals and values in society for both men and women. The war had thrust many women into early marriage and into the workforce, which sometimes caused an uprising in tensions at home. This shift in the traditional belief that a woman’s true place was at home or at a low paying, menial job challenged gender relations in many complex ways, which opened up the door to new found sexuality and sexual freedoms for women.  The war left a long standing impact on many different aspects of American lives during this time, including the institution of marriage and the sexuality of many women.
A preoccupation with marriage and sexual identity are apparent in letters written by two Memphis, Tennessee residents that courted each other during WWII. These two people were Merrill Dan and Hope Bespalow. Merrill was a Lieutenant in the US Army and was shipped out and stationed overseas (mainly in Europe) for the better part of their courtship years. Hope Bespalow was a college student during this time at the University of Wisconsin. The letters contain many of the traditional ideals and values believed in during this time frame and can allow a reader to see firsthand how they were used and applied. Some of these included the common fears of infidelity, fears of becoming a war widow, and some ideas surrounding marriage. Unlike many couples, Hope and Merrill did not get married immediately before Merrill was shipped out for combat. They courted each other through letters that span years during the war. This proved to be very hard with problems of delayed letters that could take months to arrive and government overbearingness with their censorship practices. But their love and dedication for each other can clearly be seen in every single letter.
Within the realm of courtship and marriage before the turn of the century, traditions were often set aside for many different reasons. Men typically looked for four values instilled in a woman that they wanted to see in their future wife: piety, submissiveness, purity and domesticity. Often times, women felt that they could not fully live up to these standards and felt discouraged. Their insecurities were reinforced within certain areas of everyday life, like religion and literature. The expectations put on women left them feeling rather guilty even if they had the opportunity to be courted for marriage. This, however, did not mean that women did not try to redefine and defy the ideals set before them. The number of women who rebelled against these ideals only increased as time went on.
By the early 1900s, a new form of womanhood had begun to gain popularity simply known as “the new woman.” It had allowed for femininity to take on a different shape that caused change between both the public and private spheres of their everyday lives. Women who had taken on and embraced these ideals of the “new woman” participated in suffrage rights and reform, pursued a higher education, and made their way into the workforce with moderate gains. These ideals, however, were met with staunch criticism. Those opposed to it “insisted that voting, higher education, and athletic endeavors would damage women’s health and undermine their femininity and that professional women’s work and increased personal freedoms would harm the […] middle class family ideal.” But as was seen during WWII, this new ideal was more refined, fully embraced, and practiced.
By the 1940s, courtship still relied heavily on the men. Women on the other hand had no specific set of rules to follow as they did in previous decades. This is evident in the Merrill Dan and Hope Bespalow letters. As opposed to the traditional ideals of “true womanhood,” Dan was more interested in letting Hope be herself. In one letter in particular, he believed that their marriage should “be on a 50/50 basis. Not with one dominating the other.” Dan continued his support of Hope within her own life choices like furthering her education. This may not be a solid indication of how every potential marriage was viewed at this time but it is at least a fair example as to how far women had come within the realm of marriage. This is also an interesting example of how women could chose whom and how they lived their life instead of living their life indicated by an antiquated set of values laid out and enforced by men.
During WWII, marriage was on the rise. Researchers, Willard Rodgers and Arland Thornton state, “these later cohorts [couples in the 1930s and ‘40s] have married at younger ages and fewer have remained single.” One might assume that this upswing was because men were leaving for the battlefields and therefore married quickly. But, these couples had many reasons for marrying so young and so rapidly. Some women married quickly so that they could receive the pension checks from soldiers, while some soldiers married quickly so that they knew that they had someone missing them at home. Other women married quickly for fear that all of the men being sent off to war would perish and they did not want to remain single forever. Regardless of their motives, young women all across America were getting married fast.
With the quickness of their marriages, couples often found themselves married to almost complete strangers. Others found it better to use different methods of courtship to get to know their future spouse. These methods included physically going out on dates just like before the war began or by writing letters almost daily, like Merrill and Hope Dan. Letter writing during WWII was very popular among soldiers and their loved ones. It was also very problematic when it came to courtship and marriage. Sometimes, more often than not, letters could take months to arrive to either party. Even with this unfortunate issue, many still wrote their loved ones every single day. The contents of these letters varied in substance. Most were very mundane and spoke of common daily activities. For example, Hope wrote in one letter that her family was in need of a new maid and Merrill wrote in one of his that he had a stomach ache and was going to see a doctor.  In this format, it would seem that couples during WWII were forced to communicate more through letter-writing than most couples before and after them. This helped them to really get to know one another.
The difficulties of consistent deliveries and censorship made correspondence tough on those waiting for their letters to arrive. Censorship by the government meant that the person writing the letter was very careful about what they wrote in case their letters were intercepted and contained material deemed inappropriate by the federal government. If a letter contained that type of information it was received with black stripes through certain parts of the letter or it would not arrive at all in some instances. Censorship affected a variety of couples’ letters that functioned primarily as their only way of communication.
When Hope and Merrill began their correspondence they were barely close acquaintances but when the letters came to an end they were married to each other. In some instances though, the Dan couple were very different in comparison to other couples of their age. While many women were scrambling to secure their husbands before all the men were shipped off to war, Hope was furthering her education and preparing for her own future. Yet around her, many of her friends were getting excited at the prospect of their impending marriage, as evident in the letters, when she wrote to Merrill about the many engagement parties and weddings that she had attended.
Unlike her friends, Hope was not ready to throw herself into marriage. In one letter dated April 21, 1944, she wrote to Merrill about visiting her hometown and seeing “all my happy and married friends.” She continued, “I’m very glad that I haven’t found the person I want to marry yet, it’s hell when there’s a war on and the future is so uncertain.” She differed from the normal attitude of young women of her time when she wrote, “I may end up an old maid, at least that’s what everybody tries to tell me when I am home, but I’d rather that than take the chance of being a war widow with children.” These candid excerpts show that not every woman was so keen on entering into marriage for many valid reasons. Hope, however, did end up marrying Merrill, but not until the conclusion of the war in 1945.
Women during WWII saw many new freedoms and opportunities they never had before. They seized the opportunity to leave their home fronts and daily unskilled tasks to enter into the workforce. Some women would take on different roles like being nurses, joining the military, and taking on male dominated professions that would test their intellect, skill and physical power. This opportunity for women was enlightening and empowering in regards to dispelling the typical stereotypes given, quite unfairly, to women. This all was possible when America finally entered into the war and began drafting thousands of eligible men into service leaving these positions vacant. Women felt it was their duty to step in and fill the gap. They helped to shape the country during this time, not just within the political system, but also in the home life. 
Also during this time, many women adopted a more liberal attitude in regards to their sexuality during the war. This caused yet another sexual double standard between the sexes and it would even go as far as involving the U.S. government campaigning and facilitating a “war against women who transgressed [sexual] boundaries.” Initially, it began as a government effort to eradicate sexually transmitted diseases among soldiers caused by prostitution in and around military bases but quickly snowballed into an attack against women who were perceived as immoral or “loose”. Women, whether guilty of those behaviors or perhaps just exercising their sexual independence, were detained and forcibly tested for STDs and sometimes forced to enter into a rehabilitation program depending on the results. Men, both enlisted and not, were never forced to follow any form of the strict regulations placed on women. Military culture had a strong correlation to sexual assertiveness and the men were expected to be sexually active. This attitude towards women’s new found sexuality caused more issues for women.
This same belief extended into attitudes towards the issue of infidelity. Hope and Merrill discussed infidelity in passing in their letters. In one letter during their courtship years, Hope writes to Merrill and expresses concern about faithfulness. She writes almost as a warning, “But watch those French women! Have you seen any yet?” This warning stems from the belief that French women were enthralled with American soldiers for a multitude of reasons. “GIs were known as Amerilots”: they had lots of everything and they signified abundance” and in return the soldiers had “preconceived sexual fantasies and an ingrained belief in the decadence of French women.” As for what the women back home were doing while their soldiers were away, Hope again writes to Merrill, that the “unfaithfulness of wives of boys overseas […] is disgusting.” Between the sexes both at home and overseas infidelity was rampant and condemned, yet still a common occurrence for a variety of reasons.
WWII both disrupted and reformed the ideals of traditional domesticity and true womanhood. It gave rise to new and improved ideals of the popularized “new woman” who had previously only pushed for suffrage and reform, and a higher education along with meager equal opportunities in the workplace. The war gave more women opportunities to enter the workforce and prove their worth outside the home and they were able to create their own sexual identities and exercise their own sexual freedoms. These changes, however, did not come without difficulties. Women often had to endure sexism, resentment and many other problematic attitudes when it came to their new found opportunities and freedoms within both the home front and the workplace and even sexually. But these women did so much for both the war effort and for their men serving overseas. They gave their time, their energy and some even gave their lives. Some would say that the women of this time period helped blaze the trail to a better tomorrow for all women in America.
Anderson, Karen. "The Great Depression and World War II." In A Companion to American Women's History, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt. Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2005.
Baker, Paula. “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920”. The American Historical Review 89 (1984): 620–47.
DuBois, Ellen C., and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women's Eyes. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012.
Hope and Merrill Dan Papers, 1943-1945. The University of
Memphis Libraries Preservation and Special Collections Department at the McWherter Libary.
Macleod, Robert B., R. M. Williams, R. M. Williams, and L. S. Cottrell. Review of Studies in Social Psychology in World War II. Vol. II: The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath: Measurement and Prediction. Science & Society 15. (Guilford Press, 1951): 64–68.
Pfau, Ann. "Review of Hegarty, Marilyn E., Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: the Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II." (H-War, H-Net Reviews, November 2008).
Roberts, Mary Louise. "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France." (Times Higher Education, May 2013). https://www.timeshighereducation.com/books/what-soldiers-do-sex-and-the-american-gi-in-world-war-ii-france-by-mary-louise-roberts/2003931.
Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860”. American Quarterly 18. (1966): 151–74.
Willard Rodgers and Arland Thornton, “Changing Patterns of First Marriage in the United States,” Demography 22, NO. 2 (1985). .
 Karen Anderson, "The Great Depression and World War II." In A Companion to American Women's History, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt. (Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2005).
 Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860”. American Quarterly 18. (1966): 151–74.
 Ellen C. DuBois, and Lynn Dumenil. Through Women's Eyes. Boston, MA: (Bedford/St. Martin's, 2012).
 Merrill Dan, “March 2, 1945. Letter to Hope Bespalow”. 2 March 1945. Box 1, Folder 24, Hope and Merrill Dan Papers 1943-1945. Hope and Merrill Dan Papers, 1943-1945. The University of Memphis Libraries Preservation and Special Collections Department, The University of Memphis Libraries.
 Willard Rodgers and Arland Thornton, “Changing Patterns of First Marriage in the United States,” Demography 22, NO. 2 (1985).
 Bespalow, Hope. “November 15, 1944 Letter to Merrill Dan”. 15 November 1944. Box 2, Folder 46; Dan, Merrill. “Saturday - April 27, 1944 Letter to Hope Bespalow”. 27 April 1944. Box 1, Folder 2.
 Macleod, Robert B., R. M. Williams, R. M. Williams, and L. S. Cottrell. Review of Studies in Social Psychology in World War II. Vol. II: The American Soldier: Combat and Its Aftermath: Measurement and Prediction. Science & Society 15. (Guilford Press, 1951): 64–68.
 Merrill Dan, “July 1, 1945 Letter to Hope Bespalow”. 1 July 1945. Box 1, Folder 33; Dan, Merrill. “July 4, 1945 Letter to Hope Bespalow”. 4 July 1945. Box 1, Folder 33.
 Hope Bespalow, “April 21, 1944 Letter to Merrill Dan”. 21 April 1944. Box 2, Folder 44.
 Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics: Women and American Political Society, 1780-1920”. The American Historical Review 89. (Oxford University Press, American Historical Association, 1984): 620–47.
 Ann Pfau, "Review of Hegarty, Marilyn E., Victory Girls, Khaki-Wackies, and Patriotutes: The Regulation of Female Sexuality During World War II." (H-War, H-Net Reviews, November 2008).
 Karen Anderson, "The Great Depression and World War II." In A Companion to American Women's History, edited by Nancy A. Hewitt. (Blackwell Publishing LTD., 2005).
 Hope Bespalow, “August 30, 1944 Letter to Merrill Dan”. 30 August 1944. Box 2, Folder 44.
 Mary Louise Roberts, "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France." (Times Higher Education. May 2013).
 Hope, Bespalow, “June 19, 1945 Letter to Merrill Dan”. 19 June 1945. Box 2, Folder 61.