Hobby's Army (c. 1943)
HOBBY'S ARMY (c. 1943)
During World War II, some 150,000 women served in the Women's Army Corps. Their leader, the capable and astute Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby (1905–1995), had already served as Parliamentarian of the Texas legislature, authored a book, and worked for ten years at the Houston Post before she was asked to help establish the WAC. On 5 July 1943, she was sworn in as its first leader. Hobby personally established procedures for recruitment and training, and sometimes almost single-handedly led the fight for the acceptance of women in the armed forces. Living in a society that believed women belonged in the home, the Colonel once touched off a brief national debate when, at a press conference early in her commission, she announced that any WAC who became pregnant would be summarily discharged. Newspapers writers, most of who had concentrated before on what sort of headgear the "girls" would wear and whether makeup was permitted, were taken aback. The Dallas Times Herald reported that Hobby's actions would adversely affect the birthrate and "hurt us twenty years from now, when we get ready to fight the next war." Throughout it all, Hobby led the WACs with firm resolve and professionalism, installing women in some four hundred non-combat military posts both at home and abroad. Due to poor health, she resigned from the service in July 1945, having received the Distinguished Service Medal, the only WAC to be so honored. Following the war, she became the first secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in the cabinet of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
In England this week, the U. S. Women's Army Corps had the pleasantly apprehensive experience of being inspected by the Corps' Commanding Officer. Trim Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, head woman of the WACs, found everything in order.
She saw erect, well-dressed girls drawn up for parade. In the clammy English dawn, she saw WACs in maroon bathrobes (with boy friends' unit insignia sewn in their sleeves) dashing from tin barracks and scuttling across the mud—heading for the "ablution hut" to start the day with a shivery wash-up.
There was not much glamor in it, Hobby's army had found out. Living quarters were either huts heated by a single, stove, or some drafty English country house. Only a few hundred WACs working in London were lucky enough to live in greater comfort. The pay was low. The hours were long. Discipline was strict. Sometimes there were bombings.
G. I. Jane. By last week, 1,170 WACs, dubbed "G. I. Janes" in the European Theater of Operations, were undergoing these rigors. Most of them were at General Dwight Eisenhower's headquarters and English Air Force Stations, where they plotted, teleprinted, operated switchboards, made maps, assessed combat films, "sweated out" missions in flight control rooms.
With dignity and firm morale, they had survived difficulties due to early mistakes in organization and many other unforeseen obstacles. They had caught on with a speed which amazed U. S. and British officers. They had distinguished themselves as nice-looking, hard-working, cheerful girls. Commanding officers recognized their work by pleading for more of them.
They managed to have some fun; they took in the sights, had more dates than they had ever had in their lives. During occasional air raids, some achieved the WAC ambition: to bolt from barracks, crouch in a slit trench and duck back to bed at the "all clear" without really waking up. Instead of, "What's cooking?" they said, "Nervous in the service?"
From three whole WAC battalions only three Janes had gone A. W. O. L. Chief gripe was "Why should we stay behind when the boys open the second front?"
Chief wonderment was over the tales from home that WAC recruiting had fallen down. They favored conscription for women. They asked: "What's the matter with them? Don't they want to live?"
The Colonel indeed had reason to be proud of her overseas troops, 3,000 of whom were serving in England, North Africa, Egypt, New Caledonia, India.
Like G.I. Joe. At home the women in Hobby's army had turned in an equally good record. The Army had anticipated emotional outbursts, resentment at having to take orders, squawks about living in barracks, feuds and cliques and general troubles with the unpredictable (to men) nature of women. Now at Fort des Moines, oldest of the three training centers, officers were quick to say that the Army's fears were generally groundless.
Women had turned out to be more awed than men by the military structure. Colonel Frank U. McCoskrie, who occasionally inspected a line-up, asking questions, once snapped at a WAC recruit: "Who is the commandant?" Back came the answer: "Colonel Frank U. McCoskrie." To the next WAC he said: "What's in that barracks bag?" Gulped the stiff-legged little private: "Colonel Frank U. McCoskrie." But except for a greater respect for authority and a greater capacity for bustling industry, they were not much different from G.I. Joes. In the evenings, off duty they talked about home, their dates, their husbands and sweethearts.
Like G.I. Joes, a few got in serious jams. A few over-stayed leave. A few got fed up and went on mild benders. But for the most, behavior was average young female. They put wet towels in each other's beds and tied knots in pajama legs. They griped about red tape, uniforms that did not fit hats not "as cute" as the Marine women's. They might refer to an unpopular officer privately as "that bitch." To the surprise of most males, they got along together just as well as men.
Statement of a Difference. Essential difference between Jane and Joe was pointed out by a Fort Des Moines recruit who was being loaded into an already jampacked Army truck. "Hey, sergeant," she protested, "having a heart, this bus is full." Said they tough male sergeant: "Lady, I been getting 18 men into these trucks and I sure as hell can get 18 WACs in." Wailed the squeezed WAC: "But men are broad in the shoulders."
Graduated from training, WACs now fill 239 different kinds of jobs and in some cases have filled them better than men. Among other things, WACs are opticians, surgical technicians, chemists, surveyors, electricians, radio repairmen, control-tower operators, boiler inspectors, riveters, welders, tractor mechanics, balloon-gas handlers, dog trainers.
Chief gripe of WACs at home is now that they are stuck. Said Corporal Sara Sykes at Fort Oglehorpe: "We practically drool when we hear of someone going over-seas." They complain that C.O.s do not always give them enough to do. Old soldiers fear that the busy WACs are on the way to end forever the enlisted soldiers' time-honored practice of "gold bricking."
On performance, the WACs had proved themselves. The failure was not theirs but the nation's: U. S. women still refused to join up. That was Colonel Hobby's headache—and to a lesser degree it has become the headache of Captain Mildred H. McAfee of the WAVES, Commander Dorothy C. Stratton of the SPARS and Lieut. Colonel Ruth Cheney Streeter of the Marine Women's Reserve.
Shoulder to Shoulder. Before she went to England, Colonel Hobby sat in her office in the Pentagon Building and with an air of patent unhappiness parried questions about the failure of woman recruiting. Beside her sat the Army Bureau of Public Relations' Major Francis Frazier—"to protect her," he said.
In the beginning Hobby had confidently proclaimed: "Women will come marching—shoulder to shoulder—to serve their country.…I predict that all America will be proud of them." Last week she said pensively: "I don't think it is so strange that there are no more women in uniform. Add up all the services, WACs, WAVES, SPARS, Marines and the various nursing corps and you get a sizable number of women who volunteered. I don't think it's a bad figure."
The figure was 172,822 out of the nearly 50,000,000 women: about one woman in every 3000. By comparison with this "not-bad" figure:
Of some 4,000,000 Canadian women, 31,367 have volunteered for the Army, Navy, Air Force women's services and the nursing corps: about one out of every 150.
Despite the Colonel's assertion that the U. S. could not raise a volunteer army of 400,000 men, … 677,000 men were voluntarily serving in the country's armed forces before the draft.
In Britain, where there is a generally approved national conscription (set up as much to distribute woman power as to compel service), out of some 8,670,000 women registered for national service, 7,750,000 have full-time war jobs. At least 2,500,000 of them are in the military services.
In Russia, millions serve in home-guard units for air-raid defense. Numberless women joined the Partisans during the Nazi occupation. The Government has decorated 4,575 women for valor on the battlefield. Six women have won the Government's highest award.
U. S. women are ready to point out that Russia's war is on her own soil, that British homes' have been bombed; if U. S. women had to defend their homes they would join just as valorously; if they could even take a more active part in the war, they would join.
The simple fact remains that women who took on the prosaic, behind-the-lines jobs open to them released U. S. men for the fighting fronts, just as English and Russian women have done. The enemy realizes this better than the U. S. women. Last week the Berlin radio gloated over "totally inadequate" women's Army enlistments in the U. S.
Diminishing Return. The history of WAC recruiting has been one of diminishing returns. In May 1942, when Hobby's army was the WAACs, a kind of stepsister to the Army, but not an integral part of it, it looked as if women would indeed come marching "shoulder to shoulder." The Army had set the WAAC quota at a cautious 25,000. The first day 13,208 applied.
There were some vexations. The country was inclined to laugh. Catholic Bishop James E. Cassidy of Fall River deplored the idea as a "serious menace to the home and foundation of a true Christian and democratic country." Even Army officers joined in inconsidered and harmful wise-cracks among their friends. But the women kept coming in at a gratifying rate, until by last January 20,943 had joined.
In the months that followed, however, recruiting began to slide. The Army upped the quota to 150,000; enrollment by last summer was less than half that. In the fall the WAACs became the WACs, and a full-fledged branch of the Army, with soldier's privileges of insurance, pensions, dependency allotments and overseas pay.
Given the chance to get out, 14,950 women took it. By last week Hobby's army had only recovered the strength it had lost during the debacle. Today Hobby has requests from field commanders for 600,000 WACs. She has only 63,000 to supply. For the second time in her successful life Oveta Culp Hobby has been really balked.
Miss Spark-Plug. When the chief WAC was a little girl in curls she read aloud from the Congressional Record to her father, Lawyer Isaac William Culp, of Killeen, Tex. She thought at first she would like to be a foreign missionary. Later she thought she might go on the stage.
In the end she studied law, got her degree from the University of Texas, became parliamentarian of the Texas Legislature and wrote a book on parliamentary law. At 22, Oveta codified Texas' banking laws. At 24, she ran for the State Legislature and was beaten—the first setback in a face-ever-forward career.
When she was 25, she married William Pettus Hobby. She had met him first when she was around 13 and he was Governor of Texas. Mr. Hobby published the Houston Post. She plunged into newspaper work—at the Post. For six months she studied formats, cleaned out old files; for two years she was book editor; for three years she wrote editorials and a series of articles on the constitutions of the world. At 32, she became the Post's executive vice president. Post colleagues called her "Miss Spark-Plug."
On the side she acted in amateur theatricals, collected Georgian silver and rare books (she describes herself as "bookish"). Her chief sport was riding horseback. Once she was thrown, but climbed back to the nearest horse as soon as she got out of the hospital. She had a "planned life."
She became executive director of station KPRC, a director of the Cleburne National Bank, a member of the Board of Regents at Texas State Teachers College, president of the Texas League of Women Voters, Texas chairman of the Women's Committee for the New York World's Fair. In 1941, the War Department appointed her boss of a new women's publicity bureau set up to sell the Army to the wives and mothers of the men. A year later final honors crowned her: the Army invited her to be chief of the WAACs. Mrs. Hobby moved on Washington.
Lawyer Culp's Little Girl. People in Houston observed that even if Oveta Culp Hobby had started as a private she would have soon become the colonel anyhow. She promised that "our staff will offer a reservoir of woman power on which the Army can call," and dug in for the duration. Sixty-five-year-old Mr. Hobby stayed behind in the large brick house in Houston to run the paper.
Mrs. Hobby's Washington apartment was elegant with antiques. (Friends who sublet let it for a while kept their young son in the bathroom most of the time because they were afraid he would break something.) As busy as she was, Isaac William Culp's little girl never lost her style, her poise, her figure. Guests admired the way she appeared on sweltering nights looking cool and handsome in dinner dresses with ruffles. She thought she looked best in yellow and chartreuse. She always had a weakness for absurd headgear and courageously indulged it.
Now she spares herself no work. Husband Hobby has to go to Washington if he wants to see her. She is at her office before 9 o'clock, gets home around 7:30 to have dinner with her seven-year-old daughter Jessica (William, 12, lives with his father). Frequently in the evening she pores over a stack of work. In her busy, private moments among the soft tan Chinese hangings of her living room, she must often wonder, as many a WAC does: What is the matter with U. S. women?
The Answer. One of the answers is: U. S. men—who have always preferred their women in the home. Women themselves have plenty of excuses and confused rationalizations:
"WACs waste time in bedmaking, drilling, marching. A woman can get more accomplished as an ordinary civilian worker. WAC hats are terrible. They were designed for Mrs. Hobby. She's the only one they look smart on. The WACs might make woman with a scientific background into the cook. The Army gives the WACs no real responsibility. There is no glamor in the WACs, or in the WAVES or the SPARS or the Marines. They are segregated from men. The pay is awful."
The truth might be: the majority of U. S. women are unmoved by any great sense of personal responsibility for helping fight this war. Colonel Hobby could beat her iron-grey, smartly coiffured head against that blank wall until she was groggy. She could launch advertising campaigns, promise recruits they could pick their own post, camp or station, get Army generals themselves to appeal to U. S. young women to help. The U. S.'s young women were not listening.
SOURCE: Reproduced in Time, 17 January 1944.