Mixed in Classification: The Paradox of Gender Roles in Media and the Mobilization of Women at Camp Adair

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 Maia Merims-Johnson, Gideon Lerner, and Matthew Johnson

Camp Adair was established in 1942 as a training camp during World War II, and its main source of media, the Camp Adair Sentry, launched on March 11, 1942. This military-run newspaper aimed to boost morale and foster communication in the camp. Women were front and center in the Sentry, and their portrayal forces us to reconcile with the paradox of the 1940s media, which presented both empowering and infantilizing depictions of women. The Sentry followed a similar pattern, both reflecting and challenging dominant gender norms. Camp Adair serves as a microcosm of women’s complex place in American society during World War II, as the photography in its newspaper demonstrates.

This photograph appeared in The Camp Adair Sentry on October 22, 1943. Featured in what was considered masculine clothing at the time and doing work considered men’s work, McPoil and Williams might be seen as empowered, challenging the limitations imposed on women. The caption seeks to undermine that potential, suggesting readers picture them in bathing suits and comparing their work to the role of wife.

A photograph in the October 22, 1943 issue of the Sentry provides insight into the complexities of gender in a workplace increasingly occupied by women during the war. It features Wanda McPoil and Alta Williams posed in front of an open-engine service vehicle.[1] The caption, “They Got Mixed in Classification,” implies that there had been a mistake in the women’s work assignment and that the notion of women serving as truck drivers or post engineers was inherently confusing. The caption conjures images of the women in bathing suits – “put a bathing suit on them and you’d swear these two girls should be on the beach at Waikiki” – before minimizing their labor with the comment that “they handle those ton-and-a-halfs as easily as if they were husbands.”[2] The language reflects the skepticism women faced when entering previously male-dominated industries during the war. The photograph is actually unusual for the newspaper in portraying the women wearing pants, flannel, and jackets; a majority of photographs in the Sentry featured women dressed in highly feminized clothing, many of them movie stars and other entertainers. By framing the photograph of women performing skilled manual trades, the reductive and patronizing comments in the caption mark McPoil’s and Williams’ work as unusual. This suggests that women entering these fields continued to face opposition, even if it was quieted by concerns for national defense.

Miss Ruth Kary was a Sentry Billfold Girl of the Week in March 1943. A typical glamour shot, the photograph is accompanied by a description of Kary as a “charm provider” for Boeing test pilots.

Visual media, a key component of wartime mobilization, clearly struggled to reconcile necessary changes to gender roles brought by the war and the expectations of pre-war gender constructs. As the author Adhis Chetty argued, the need for women’s labor in previously male-dominated jobs led American media provocateurs to challenge gendered expectations of labor that had dominated the national consciousness prior to the war. Propaganda “present[ed] the image of an empowered woman, able to accept responsibility for her life, and in a position to galvanize other women to take action for themselves.”[3] At the same time, unwilling to challenge the prevailing notion of women as subordinate to men, propagandists also emphasized images of women that marked them as unsuited to serious work and independence. The media scholar Steve Dillon argued that in the 1940s, in particular, “male heterosexual desire” was ubiquitous in media, which catered to the male gaze.[4]

The Camp Adair Sentry regularly portrayed women in aggressively gendered ways designed to appeal to male readers. For example, the “Billfold Girl of the Week” feature was specifically designed for the “boys” to ogle. Miss Ruth Kary, the Billfold Girl featured on March 11, 1943, was described as a “charm provider” for test pilots at Boeing Aircraft. The caption also included a Sergeant complaining about not seeing enough of Kary.[5]

The Associated Press photographer who snapped this picture, which appeared in the June 18, 1942 issue of the Sentry, thought it wise to frame the photograph from a low angle, allowing viewers to see up Dona Drake’s bathing skirt.

This rhetoric of entitlement around portrayals of women’s bodies not only reinforced but amplified the belief among readers at Camp Adair that women existed largely for male entertainment. Indeed, despite the many contributions women made to the functioning of Camp Adair, media portrayals are heavily skewed toward women’s appearance.

A particularly egregious example appeared in June 1942, when the Sentry featured an image of “movie-starlet Dona Drake” in a two-piece bathing suit, photographed from below (Figure 3).[6]

The visual portrayals of women in the Sentry reflect the challenges of wartime, which threatened to transform existing gender roles and power relations. Its seemingly confused and contradictory depiction of women can be understood as part of a larger national campaign designed, in Adhis Chetty’s words, “to persuade women to join the war waged by men and, in doing so, render loyal service to a male-dominated country in a male-dominated war.”[7]

[1] Claudia D. Goldin, “The Role of World War II in the Rise of Women’s Employment,” The American Economic Review 81, no. 4 (1991): 741-756.

[2] “They Got Mixed in Classification,” Camp Adair Sentry, October 22, 1943, 3.

[3] Adhis Chetty, “Media Images of Women During War: Vehicles of Patriarchy’s Agenda?” Agenda: Empowering Women for Gender Equity 59 (2004), 36.

[4] Steve Dillon, Wolf-Women and Phantom Ladies: Female Desire in 1940s U.S. Culture (Urbana-Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 4.

[5] “Billfold Girl . . . of the Week,” Camp Adair Sentry, March 11, 1943, 9.

[6] “Catch!” Camp Adair Sentry, June 18, 1942, 5.

[7] Chetty, “Media Images of Women During War,” 36.

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