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Background

The development and changes to Emmett and Jane's relationship during the war are not an unfamiliar story. It is not hard to recognize that effects wrought by war can and will fundamentally change and shape society. Even though historians and others have explored many of the domestic aspects of World War II on American society, the explorations of family life and gender constructions are still limited. As Jane Mersky Leder describes there exists a "collective consciousness of World War II" which "revolved around the virtues of bravery, sacrifice, and commitment."[1] Thus, it is unsurprising that some of the literature and research on family life and gender continue these longstanding ideologies.

Considered the "Greatest Generation," veterans of World War II have been consumed up by the national public mythos. Those romanticized ideals that one often associates with World War II with Rosie the Riveter, the brave soldier, and the break down of racial barriers did not exist in their most Utopian forms. As historian Kenneth D. Rose explores in Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II, American soldiers were killed, maimed, and emotionally traumatized in new ways. While on the home front, Americans experienced a shifting population towards cities to find work.[2] Women, much like World War I, once again found mobilization for their efforts in filling positions in factories, noncombatant positions, Red Cross nurses, and more. As John Morton Blum notes in his seminal work V Was for Victory, some “6.5 million, most of them middle-aged and married” participated in the labor force between 1941 and 1945. [3] Americans participated in an economy, society, and culture that was attempting to move both forward and maintain a sense of self-preservation.

The family unit, marriage, and traditional gender roles experienced pressure during the duration of World War II. As a number of historians have described, World War II disrupted family life and households through both personal and spatial privacy. Perry R. Duis describes how young brides often lacked money which put domestic plans on hold which Jane experienced during the war.[4] Rationing and other economic tensions would not make life easy for young brides like Jane. Emmett's increasing worry in his letters reflect these issues as he remains apprehensive whether or not Jane has enough funds saved for themselves as a couple.

Increasingly, the sex, love, family life, and gender all intersected in various instances. For example, the government would utilize both a woman's sexual appeal and beauty to encourage men to enlist and at the same time condemn women for the reason behind the increase in sexually transmitted diseases. [5] The media would pick up on similar threads by utilizing feminine beauty and 'alluring' qualities to sell products. Although the homefront in many ways preserved for many the ideal of womanhood more than women involved in the military, femininity, motherhood, and sex all faced reconstructions and scrutiny within this rapidly changing environment.

Thinking more locally than nationally, Canton, Ohio and Stark County morphed, grew, and moved along to the beats of war, cultural shifts, and ideological challenges. Canton was home to numerous industries including Hoover and Timken Industries, both which still maintain a presence in the economic, social, and physical landscape. Timken alone in 1940 announced a three million dollar expansion program of seven plants including Canton's. Manufacturing jobs grew as the United States needed to feed the war machine. To do one part on the homefront did not just entail working, but it included showing a self-patriotic duty to rationing, subsistence living, and rallying together to maintain the 'boys' overseas. Canton, for example, in September 1941, held one of the largest parades in the city's history with "3,000 marchers, 15 bands, and 100 trucks and floats" all to support defense stamps which supported war bonds.[6]

As The Stark County Story remarks, it appeared that not even the "setbacks of wars and depressions" could deflect those in Stark County from trying to fulfill the American Dream. [7] Both Jane's and Emmett's letters to each other reflect these many issues and others that occurred during and after the war. Friendships became critical bonds for both parties. However, like the basis for this project, letters acted as a mode of communication, a platform for connecting with loved ones, and ongoing dialogue of emotions. If sex, gender, and love were messy before, then war served as a continuous earthquake that sent various degrees of shock waves felt by American citizens. In the end, this project barely touches the surface of these issues. It is, however, an initial starting place for examining letters like these in greater context and understanding the social tensions faced by the romanticized notion of family, marriage, and love.

Citations:

1Jane Mersky Leder,Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex, and World War II (Wesport: Prageger, 2006), ix.

2Kenneth D. Rose, Myth and the Greatest Generation: a Social History of Americans in World War II (New York: Routledge, 2013), 3.

3John Morton Blum, V Was For Victory: Politics and American Culture During World War II (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1976), 94.

4 Perry R. Duis, "No Time for Privacy: World War II and Chicago's Families," in The War in American Culture: Society and Consciousness During World War II eds. Lewis A. Erenberg and Susan E. Hirsch (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), 23-28.

5 Melissa A. McEuen, "Women, Gender, and World War II," Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, http://americanhistory.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199329175.001.0001/acrefore-9780199329175-e-55.

6 Kimberly A. Kenney, Canton: A Journey Through Time (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2003), 127-130.

7 Edward T. Heald, The Stark County Story: Free People at Work, 1917-1955, Volume IV (Columbus: The Stoneman Press, 1955), 1.