Image versus Reality: Women in the Camp Adair Sentry

Students in Dr. Marisa Chappell’s fall 2023 History 363 “Women in U.S. History” class spent the final three weeks of Fall Quarter 2023 in OSU’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center exploring women in Camp Adair’s history.

By Anish Alam, Annabel McMillan, and Gwyn Scalet

As we explored the Camp Adair Sentry, the official newspaper of Camp Adair during its years as a World War II training cantonment, we were struck by its superficial portrayal of women. We knew from our course readings and discussions that women played significant roles during World War II, so we set out to explore this seeming contradiction by analyzing the differences between the portrayal of women in the Sentry and the actual roles women played at Camp Adair. Our findings suggest that at Camp Adair, as in the rest of the United States, the war offered various opportunities for women and that, at the same time, there were distinct attempts to contain the transformative possibilities of women’s expansive contributions to the war effort.

“Elect Your PX Dream Girl! – The Rules,” Camp Adair Sentry, February 11, 1943, describes a competition in which male soldiers voted for their favorite among the women who staffed the camp’s post exchanges.

An article on the front page of the Camp Adair Sentry on February 11, 1942 announced a contest to “Elect Your PX Dream Girl!” The article discusses a contest being run on the base in which men at Camp Adair voted to choose the “best” female worker in the camp’s retail outlets, called Post Exchanges. The contest highlights the sexualization and objectification of women at the camp and in American society. The article describes competitors solely in terms of their appearances and framing their beauty in terms of male fantasy: “Wherever she is, she rings her bell. She’s the reason you stand in a surging line for an hour.” The article does not discuss the actual labor women performed as retail workers at all. It notes that the top four contestants would be “photographed – with sweaters (although bathing suits would be alright too),” further illustrating the women’s position as objects.[1]

“Social Swirl” from the Camp Adair Sentry, March 11, 1943, details social events happening on and around the camp.

This article was not unique. A review of issues of the newspaper revealed that women were generally dismissed or objectified. The Sentry repeatedly focused on women’s social role and the perception of women by male service members. When women’s labor is discussed, it is confined to their role as entertainment. The article “Social Swirl” from March 11, 1942, for example, documents women’s role overseeing social events for the enjoyment of servicemen.[2] Women-organized dances at Camp Adair and in nearby communities provided recreation and entertainment for men.

From the “Help Wanted – Female” section of the Oregon Statesman, November 23, 1943, this advertisement recruited “girls” as retail workers at Camp Adair. The advertisement just below, in contrast, seeks “women” to work as a cook in a boarding house.

Despite the newspaper’s emphasis on appearance, other sources illustrate that women’s labor, both paid employment and volunteer labor, was essential to Camp Adair’s functioning. A November 23, 1943 advertisement in the Oregon Statesmen for “girls to clerk in Camp Adair exchange stores,” for example, promised a “good salary” for a six-day work week. The use of the world “girls” indicates that the employers were looking specifically for young women.[3] Retail jobs thus offered new opportunities for local women to earn wages. Another Oregon Statesman article discussed local women volunteering to create recreational spaces for service members at Camp Adair. Women had long performed this kind of volunteer labor, and its coverage in the newspaper suggested that it was recognized as valuable; at the same time, the article noted that the work was done “without additional help,” suggesting that readers might assume women were not fully competent.[4]

This excerpt from “Monmouth Women Furnish Second Recreation Room” in the Oregon Statesman on March 9, 1943, describes women’s volunteer work furnishing recreation spaces for servicemen at Camp Adair.

Women also served as clerks and nurses at Camp Adair. An article in the Oregon State Barometer on April 21, 1943 reports that Miss Virginia Landquist, who was “director of the division of biochemistry at the Camp Adair field hospital,” and Miss Winifred de Witt, member of the camp’s nurse corp, would visit Oregon State College to talk to students about “the opportunities open to women with home economics background and who wish to  make their efforts count for victory.” Many of those opportunities, as the speakers suggest, were highly skilled, salaried positions. Of course, salaried and professional roles and social and recreational ones were not mutually exclusive. The article notes that “Miss Lundquist supplements her work at the camp with duties as director of dancing instruction at the Corvallis USO [United Service Organization].” [5]

It is not surprising to find women workers and volunteers at Camp Adair. Historians have documented the varied positions women played during World War II. According to historians Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, some 6.5 million women in the United States were employed, bringing the proportion of American women in the labor force from 25% before the war to 36% by its end. Historians argue that the labor women performed during the war affected their identities. Litoff argues that “one of the most significant themes expressed” in women’s wartime letters “is the new sense of self experience,” demonstrating that these roles held significant meaning and opened a new sense of purpose in women’s lives.[6] The historian Karen Anderson, too, argued that the fact that a majority of women “wanted to keep their jobs after the war signified that women’s aspirations for themselves and their sense of their own competence had been dramatically altered” by their war work.[7] When set against scholarship about expanding roles for women and research in other local newspapers, it is clear that The Sentry underrepresented the labor of women on camp.

[1] “Elect Your PX Dream Girl – The Rules,” Camp Adair Sentry, February 11, 1943, 1.

[2] “Social Swirl,” Camp Adair Sentry, March 11, 1943, 8.

[3] “Help Wanted – Female,” The Oregon Statesman, November 23, 1943, 11.

[4] “Monmouth Women Furnish Second Recreation Room,” The Oregon Statesman, March 9, 1943, 5.

[5] “Home Economics Club Sponsors Convo Today,” Oregon State Barometer, April 21, 1942, 3.

[6] Judy Barrett Litoff and David C. Smith, “U.S. women on the Home Front in World War II,” The Historian 57, no. 2 (1995), 354. For discussion of women’s home front work in Oregon specifically, see Amy E. Platt, “‘Go into the yard as a worker, not as a woman’” Oregon Women During World War II, a Digital Exhibit on the Oregon History Project,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 116, no. 2 (2015): 234-248

[7] Karen Andersen, “Teaching about Rosie the Riveter: The Role of Women during World War II,” OAH Magazine of History 3, no. ¾ (1988), 35.

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