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McEuen authors Making War, Making Women

Melissa mcEuenIn the opening lines of her latest book, Making War, Making Women: Femininity and Duty on the American Home Front, 1941-1945, history professor Melissa McEuen relates a newspaper account about the positive effects of free cosmetics on a particular group of women who had been drawn into the work force during World War II.

She writes, “It recounted a Vogue magazine feature about a New York factory that had recently installed large mirrors in its women’s restrooms and offered employees free cosmetics—changes linked to favorable results on the factory floor.” 

That passage sets the tone for the primary theme of her book, which is how a notion of ideal womanhood was promoted to American women as a vital force in achieving victory in the war effort. It also introduces the idea of the visual images that are referred to and depicted throughout the book, many of which stressed to women their duty to maintain their physical appearance and thereby help sustain their own, and the nation’s, morale in a time of great stress.

Making War, Making Women examines how women’s bodies and minds became “battlegrounds” in America’s fight for victory in the war. Drawing on war propaganda, popular advertising, government records, and personal accounts written by women in the 1940s, McEuen explains how women were told that their faces, clothes, and comportment indicated how seriously they took their responsibilities as citizens.

“For women, it meant not letting themselves go physically,” McEuen said. “It was their patriotic duty to remain fashionable, to buy the right lipstick, to adorn themselves in ways that would be acceptable to the men who would come home to them, and to the community at large. In this way, they could be a stabilizing force to keep America the way it always was. The message was that the home front will not change, even though the world around them was changing. This was seen as a key factor in keeping up national morale.”

Making war, making womenMcEuen also shows that the wartime rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and postwar opportunity coexisted uneasily with the realities of a racially stratified society. She explores how African Americans grappled with the idea of whiteness representing the true American identity.

McEuen spent considerable time doing research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and at Duke University, which has an extensive collection of materials relating to business marketing and sales. She was able to bring some of this material into her classroom this past May term when she taught a course entitled American Women in World War II.

“My research feeds my teaching, and vice-versa,” she said. “They are inextricably linked. I brought copies of documents and images to this class that are not readily available to our students otherwise, since they have not been digitized.”

That May term course also gave McEuen an unexpected satisfaction when she found that her students used her book as a jumping off point for further research.

“Based on questions the students asked and on the research projects they did—which were not assignments, but things they just did on their own—I found that the book stimulated a lot of follow-up investigations.”

McEuen is also the author of Seeing America: Women Photographers between the Wars.

The book is available at

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