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Grolier Club Exhibitions

The Military's Women

The Military's Women, The Best-Read Army in the World, curated by Molly Manning, exhibited at the Grolier Club

During World War I and World War II, women were instrumental in getting books into the hands of troops. During the latter, many volunteers in the Women’s Army Corps were assigned to the Army’s Library Branch and served at posts around the world. This case shows how women overcame prejudice and stereotypes to perform important war work despite receiving little credit. A spotlight is cast on trailblazing librarians, such as Althea Warren, Mildred Young, and Isabel DuBois.

Neysa McMein. “One of the Thousand Y.M.C.A. Girls in France. 1918. 

World War II was not the first time women volunteered to distribute books to U.S. troops.  Though they could not join the military during World War I, women boldly challenged gender stereotypes, volunteered for organizations like the YMCA, traveled overseas, and distributed reading material. In this striking image by Neysa McMein, a YMCA volunteer in France hands out hot coffee and books in 1918.

“Facts You Want to Know about the WAC. U.S. Army, Recruiting Publicity Bureau, 1940s. 

Some of the women who volunteered to join the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) ultimately served as librarians in theaters around the world. As this recruiting booklet advertised, women were eligible for over 200 Army jobs, though they were ineligible to serve in combat. Armed with books, magazines, and newspapers, librarians went wherever U.S. troops did. This included overseas posts in close proximity to the fighting.

Mademoiselle. New York: Street & Smith Publications, Inc., September 1943. 

This 1943 “Women War Workers” series in Mademoiselle magazine encouraged women to serve the nation by working. In this issue, women were asked to consider becoming professional librarians. “Libraries are arsenals of information needed to win and plan the peace.” On the front cover, a “readers’ adviser” assists a sailor in selecting a book.

Overseas Woman. U.S. Army Information and Education Division, December 1945. 

While nearly 400,000 women served in the military during World War II, they often felt like outsiders in a male-dominated space. The image on the cover of the December 1945 issue of Overseas Woman captures this feeling perfectly. Periodicals by and for women tried to create a sense of belonging and sisterhood. Overseas Woman was printed primarily for women serving in Europe, and it showcased the important work women were doing in the Army.

Cosmopolitan (Special Overseas Edition). New York: Hearst Magazines, Inc., October 1944. 

The Army aimed to provide its soldiers with the reading material they wanted most. For those who volunteered for Women’s Army Corps (WAC), this meant their favorite magazines from home. To this end, the Army created a “WAC Magazine Kit” featuring ten women’s magazines, including Cosmopolitan. Issues of this “special overseas edition” were distributed to women in the Army, Navy, and Coast Guard.

WAC News: The Armygal’s Publication. Des Moines: Publications Office, Fort Des Moines, Iowa, October 7, 1944. 

One of the largest military installations for WACs was Fort Des Moines, and so it was only fitting that women produced their own weekly newspaper there. WAC News heralded the work women were performing in all theaters of war. To celebrate the paper’s two-year anniversary, the Army’s most famous cartoonists, Milton Caniff and Sgt. Sansone, collaborated to congratulate “the gang at Ft. Des Moines.”

WAVES Newsletter. Washington D.C.: Bureau of Naval Personnel, Navy Department, January 1946. 

The Navy also produced its own specialized periodicals to highlight the important work that the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVEs) were doing. Rumors on the home front suggested that Army and Navy women joined the military merely to meet and date men. Periodicals like this WAVES Newsletter showed what serious jobs women did. When WAVEs were done reading, they mailed their Newsletter home to help set the record straight.

Seth Muse. “Mildred.” Undated. 

Pictured here is Mildred Young, who was a post librarian at Camp Buckner, North Carolina, during World War II. Thereafter, she was promoted to chief of the Army Library Branch’s procurement section. And in September 1948, she rose to the position of chief of the Army Library Branch. She was the first woman to take charge of the Army’s libraries and earned a reputation for her outstanding work.

“Council on Books Holds Third Annual Meeting.” Publishers’ Weekly. New York: February 10, 1945. 

In 1945, Publisher’s Weekly reported on the Council on Books in Wartime’s annual meeting and included rare photographs of many of the key actors in the production and distribution of the ASEs. In the righthand photograph, the Army’s Chief Librarian, Col. Ray Trautman, sits near the Navy’s librarian, Isabel DuBois. DuBois was one of the only women at meetings for the Council on Books in Wartime, and she struggled to be taken seriously.

Series of Photographs of Fort Knox Librarians. Fort Knox, undated. 

The librarians in these photographs are wearing the original uniform and insignia for Army hostesses and librarians. The patch worn on their garrison caps and left shoulder was a semi-circle in an array of colors. To dispel the idea that librarians were no different than hostesses, the Army developed a separate librarian patch that was released after V-J Day and worn by librarians who served occupation forces.

“Conference Army Librarians Fourth Service Command.” Atlanta, Georgia: April 22-24, 1943. 

Army Signal Corps. “Librarian Conference.” Undated. 

Army librarians faced unique challenges and opportunities, and periodic meetings were held to keep librarians informed. At this meeting for the Fourth Service Command, librarians learned about the role of technical libraries, optimal organization of library buildings, book purchasing procedures, fiscal procedures, soldier reading interests, library administration, and collaboration ideas with the Army Educational Program.

Western Union Telegram from Ray Trautman to Isabel DuBois, November 27, 1946. 

Isabel DuBois was in charge of the Navy’s Library Service during World War II. Although many publishers complained that DuBois unfairly criticized aspects of the ASE program, the Army’s Chief Librarian, Ray Trautman, supported DuBois and believed she did an outstanding job. When DuBois left the Navy, Trautman sent her this telegram. It reads: “A well done to you for your achievements in planning and directing a great library service.”

“Named Director of National Defense Book Program.” Acme, November 26, 1941. 

Althea Warren, chief librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, headed the 1942 Victory Book Campaign. Charles Taft, a government official, openly stated a man would do a better job. Warren’s successor was a man and he collected fewer books. Taft’s blatant sexism infuriated Warren, who remarked to a friend that he made her “want to haul off and slap him in the jaw…. He is so full of criticism and with no suggestions to help.”

Insignia. Librarian/Hostess Semi-Circle patch.   

Insignia. “Army Library Service” patch. 

During World War II, the Army initially provided librarians the same insignia as its hostesses: a colorful semi-circle that was sewn onto garrison caps and the left-hand shoulder of uniforms. Towards the end of World War II, Army librarians argued they should have their own insignia because their work was entirely different from Army hostesses. After the war ended, a blue-and-white square patch became the official insignia for Army librarians.

Librarian uniform and garrison cap. Post-World War II. 

After V-J Day, librarian uniforms shifted from tan to blue, and they were issued an exclusive patch to be sewn onto their garrison caps and arm sleeves. The uniform on display is an authentic late-1940s blouse and garrison cap.