Swarthmore College Peace Collection, 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA 19081-1399, USA

The Women's Committee to Oppose Conscription:
Women's Peace Politics at Mid-Century
by Wendy Chmielewski
(Curator, SCPC), March 1989

Paper originally presented at a conference to celebrate the 100th Anniversary
of the Founding of Hull House and Jane Addams, University of Illinois,
Urbana-Champaign. Please do not cite or reproduce without the permission
of the author. She may be contacted at:

In 1982, after a struggle of more than ten years, the Equal Rights Amendment was defeated in key state legislatures. Analysts have explored many reasons for the defeat of a popular amendment, which polls showed more than 70% of the American people supported. One of the most bitterly contended aspects of the supposed affect of the amendment was the question of the role of women in the military and their position in terms of registration for a draft or conscription. Opponents of the ERA voiced the opinion that the amendment would require of women the same duties and responsibilities as men in the military. That is, women would register under the same conditions as their male counterparts, and they would serve in all areas of the armed forces, including combat units. Feminist proponents of the ERA fell into several camps. All supported the view that women were physically capable of military service. Feminist pacifists did not deny the ability of women for service, but did not want to support the possibility of extending the draft to another large segment of the population. The dilemma for many feminists became trying to deny that the intention of the ERA would be diluted by gender considerations in military service, while not recommending the extension of conscription for another segment of the population.

It is clear that with or without the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment Congress has the legal capacity to call for the conscription of women and to dictate their place in the armed forces. The conscription of women is certainly not a new idea. Both Houses of Congress seriously considered drafting women during the Second World War. The Women's Committee to Oppose Conscription, the subject of this paper, was organized early in 1943 to combat legislative action first surrounding the conscription of women, and then, peacetime conscription for all young people. The organizers of the Committee clearly supported the equal rights of women, but were opposed to any extension of registration or conscription to the female portion of the population. Like other women's organizations of the period the WCOC combined feminist arguments and traditional views of women's place in society to support their position. The history, strategy, philosophy, and politics of the WCOC, place the organization in the center of women's politics, pacifist politics, and feminist pacifism of the middle of the twentieth century. The women of the WCOC used their connections and networks within the peace movement, and within other women's organizations to fight against legislative action over the conscription of women.

In the fall of 1942 there were rumors that a bill would reach the floor of the Senate that would include a section asking for the drafting of nurses into the armed forces. The WCOC, originally naming themselves the Committee to Oppose the Conscription of Women, was organized to oppose this measure. Many of the early supporters of the Committee were also active members of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Mildred Scott Olmsted, the director of the new organization had served in branch and national offices of the WILPF since 1922 and continued to work at the national offices in addition to her position at the WCOC. Other WILPF members of the new Committee included Emily Greene Balch, Dorothy Detzer, Hannah Clothier Hull, and Gertrude Bussey, all leaders of the League. The close connection between the two organizations insured the philosophy of the WCOC was grounded in the equal rights of women.

Not only did the Committee share members with the WILPF, but there were also close financial and philosophical connections. The WCOC and the WILPF shared similar strategies to gain their goals and support for their purposes as did many other women's organizations. The Committee's strategy for success was primarily legislative. The organizers wrote letters to Congressmen and urged their supporters to do the same. Olmsted and other officers testified before House and Senate Committees considering the conscription of women, hoping to gather Congressional support to defeat the various conscription measures. The WCOC also assigned lobbyists, including Annalee Stewart, later a national WILPF president, to garner support for their cause.

To make their cause effective in Congress the WCOC organizers also attempted to gather grassroots support. They made the most of their connections in the peace movement, with women's organizations, and supportive religious organizations. WCOC flyers and leaflets calling for opposition to conscription for women were sent to people on the mailing lists of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the Women's International League. Support also came from the National Council for Prevention of War and the War Resisters League. Material was sent to women and men on the mailing lists of Methodist, Quaker, Mennonite, and Brethren church groups. A primary step of the WCOC was to contact as many officers of women's organizations to gain their individual public support and to gain access to their membership lists. The hoped for outcome however, was the same in all instances, get women and men to contact their legislators and voice their opposition to the conscription of women. The WCOC asked their grassroots supporters to get their local clubs, labor unions, church groups, and service groups to pass resolutions against the conscription of women. They urged members to have community leaders make statements or write letters to the editor of the local paper. WCOC literature also asked for contributions or directed supporters to raise money for WCOC lobbying efforts in Washington. Women were urged to write articles for the press and church publications stating their opposition to the conscription of women. The WCOC distributed large amounts of their own literature. By June of 1943, six months after the founding of the organization, they had sent out over 45,000 pieces of literature and the demand was rising.

As the possibility that women would be conscripted became more likely, the WCOC was able to join with a broad coalition of labor, women's, and racial groups all opposed to extending the Selective Service act to include women. Presidential and Congressional support for conscripting of women into a civilian labor force was quite high. The Austin-Wadsworth bill introduced into the Senate in 1943 intended that all women between the ages of 18 and 50 and women without dependent children under the age of 18, would become available for a draft. They would either be assigned to the military or to various industries around the country. The WCOC opposed the bill on some of the same grounds as they had fought against the nurse conscription bill earlier in the year. Their first argument was that the bill was unnecessary. Many nurses had volunteered to join the armed forces and many other women had volunteered to work in wartime industries. WCOC members believed that under utilization of black nurses in the armed forces and other black women and men in the work force contributed to the supposed shortage problems of which the army, navy, air force, and some industrialists complained.

Early in their campaign to defeat conscription the WCOC published a series of pamphlets that explained the reasons they believed Americans should oppose any sort of drafting of women. It was very clearly stated that they believed women to be physically, mentally, and intellectually capable of serving in all capacities. Dr. Georgia Harkness, a Methodist minister and chair of the WCOC wrote:

Objection to the conscription of women . . . ought not to proceed from the assumption
that chilvalry requires the shielding of women from hardship. There is no reason
for objecting to it either on the basis of special privilege of sex or of the exemption
of anybody from the hard requirements of our time.

However, the women of the WCOC did oppose conscription of women on a gender specific basis. Military or civilian conscription, they said, would place women, as a sex, back under the complete control of men. In the military or in a war industry job women would be told where to go, how to work, where they could live, and how much they could be paid. WCOC director, Mildred Scott Olmsted wrote on this issue of male domination in 1943:

Women have not fought for and won their right to be free from the
dictation of their fathers and husbands as to when and where and
how they may work only to turn that right over to their neighbors . . .
reactionaries would require all women with children to remain at
home and allow no woman without children to do so.

Olmsted used the same feminist argument in a radio broadcast the following year. This time she focused on women's loss of freedom in the armed forces:

Women have fought for years for the right to be free from the
domination of men - the right to be educated, to vote, to marry or
not to marry as they want, to work . . . . The army gives [women] . . .
opportunity to do only minor jobs. They would have no real
influence in the army, and no freedom, and they know it.

However, the argument that conscription would place women under male domination was not emphasized in WCOC's campaign. This feminist line of reasoning against the conscription of women did not appear in any of their printed literature. It seems likely that their second gender specific argument against drafting women brought more support to their cause. In the broadcast quoted above, where Olmsted gave, what we may cite as feminist reasons for opposing a women's draft, she also emphasized a more traditional role for women:

Women are naturally and rightly the home makers, producers,
and conservers of life . . . . They play their part during the war by
"keeping the home fires burning until the boys come home" by carrying
on the services that hold the community together.

Women were charged with maintaining the "American Way of Life," while their male relatives were off fighting. This role for women was complex. Women were expected to preserve the home and the family the way they had been before the war. A propaganda film produced by the Office of War Information in 1943 included a soldier who made the following statement which illustrated this as part of government policy:

"I'm glad you haven't turned the old house into just a headquarters, Mom;
I'm glad you're keeping it our home, the way it was. That's the way I feel
about it out here, that is also part of a woman's war job--keeping up the home,
the homes we're fighting for, that some day we want to come back to."

In addition to keeping a home women were also asked to work either in paid wartime industry jobs or volunteer for some other service to aid the war effort. At the same time mothers were blamed for what was seen as a rise in the rate of juvenile delinquency, especially amongst adolescent girls. During the war many Americans were concerned with what seemed like a rise in "juvenile delinquency." The blame for this rise in "increasing delinquency and truancy among children, of spreading immorality and venereal disease and illegitimacy among adolescents, of broken homes, and a rising divorce rate, and a general restlessness and craving for liquor and excitement," was laid at the door of working mothers. The statistical rise in juvenile delinquency amongst girls was actually a rise in the sexual activity between teen age girls and service men. A WCOC pamphlet quoted government sources as stating that "teen-age pickups" out numbered professional prostitutes 4 to 1 as spreaders of venereal disease amongst servicemen. The pamphlet went on to connect lack of parental supervision, particularly from mothers, with this rise in the promiscuity of young girls. With husbands and fathers in the armed forces women were charged with sole responsibility of maintaining family stability. Opponents of the conscription of women argued again and again that drafting women into the military or a civilian work force would further disrupt family life. Although the Austin-Wadsworth bill provided for the exemption of women with children under 18, it made no exception for women with older teenagers and adolescents still in the home. WCOC representatives continually argued that women should remain the focus and central pillar of the home.

WCOC literature and spokeswomen stated that women would volunteer for the war time duty, but their primary duty lay in the home and family. In the pamphlet "Keep the Home Fires Burning!" written by Tracy D. Mygatt for the WCOC, this view is emphasized. The pamphlet was written in the form of a dialogue between two housewives. Mrs. Jones tries to convince her neighbor Mrs. Smith to join the Committee:

Well there's a women's committee that's got a big job on its hands . . . .
It's called the National Committee Against Conscription of Women (WCOC). . . .
And it's trying to preserve the American home. . . . In a way that's what we've been
trying to do . . . lighting a sort of candle for America to see by.
Homes, true homes, with women in them, for our country!

Another WCOC pamphlet written by Betty Jacobs, a lobbyist for Committee and published the same year, clearly identified women with the home:

Women have a special responsibility for maintaining those constructive
influences in the home and community necessary to the future of our country
and fundamental to the kind of life which our men are fighting to maintain.

Eleanor Garst extended this view in a radio talk for WCOC in 1944. Under the civilian conscription act proposed by the Austin-Wadsworth Bill the government would have supreme power not only over a coal miner in Pennsylvania, but over a school teacher in Oregon - and his wife, and his 18-year-old daughter. Whether or not the power is used, it would be possible under this bill to send the man into a factory, his wife into war work in another city, and his daughter into the WACs. What becomes of education? What becomes of the home? Apparently that isn't important.

The WCOC was not alone in this view of the domestic role women could best perform. The National Council Against Conscription and the War Resisters League also published literature with similar arguments focused on the fight against the conscription of women.

In the early period when the primary work of the WCOC was against the conscription of women alone, the arguments stressing the domestic nature of women's social role may have been expedient. However, early 1944 when the immediate danger of drafting women seemed over and the WCOC expanded to include work against a peacetime draft for men (and perhaps young women) they lost some of the support they had gathered for their previous fight.

The WCOC had originally gathered much support amongst church women for their stand against the conscription of women. There is some evidence that the WCOC's more traditional arguments about the need for women to remain in the home to stabilize the family appealed to this large segment of their supporters, but much of this support drained away when work against peacetime conscription became the focus of the organization.

Concern over the family and the fate of women were not the only arguments used by the WCOC in their battle against the draft. The WCOC and other opponents of conscription saw the extension of the Selective Service Act to include women as unacceptable regimentation and militarization of American society. They charged that the formation of a conscripted civilian labor force smacked of facism, the very ideology against which the war was supposedly being fought. In this view the WCOC joined organized labor, women's labor organizations, such as the Women's Trade Union League, religious groups, and groups concerned with the rights of African Americans. Opponents of the Austin-Wadsworth bill warned that the conscription of all adults would break up homes and families, or at best disrupt them, housing would be inadequate for the new influx of workers in some areas, unions would be busted, workers would lose job security and seniority, and many Americans would lose their right to vote because of residency requirements. Conscription meant a "general regimentation of life which is at variance with the basic principles of freedom on which . . . [the] country was founded." Some saw this move as a way for industrialists and employers to take advantage of the war to gain the upper hand over workers. The poor voting records of Senator Austin and Congressman Wadsworth, on other issues such as civil rights, Social Security, the rights of workers and the poor were used to back the claim that this was a conservative effort to control the American people. The WCOC also posited that many men accepted conscription for themselves, but would see the drafting of their wives, daughters, and mothers as the militarization of society.

The WCOC was successful in its original purpose of helping to defeat the conscription of women. The members were able to be effective because they joined with like-minded organizations, such as women's groups, and other left-wing organizations. WCOC officers were seasoned workers of the peace movement and the women's movement. This experience served them well in the fight against the conscription of women. Although the WCOC utilized a strategy that recognized the equality of women, this was overshadowed by a more traditional interpretation of a social role for women. In the short term the WCOC gained support from women and men of conventional leanings, particularly in church organizations, with their arguments against the further utilization of women's conscripted labor outside the home. However, this support did not last.

By emphasizing the domestic role of women and identifying them with the home, the WCOC may have aided in the post war drive to get women out of the work force. It is understandable that WCOC strategy attempted to gather support for its policies amongst a wide range of women and so attracted those with more conventional views. Current feminist strategies on the issue of military service, a draft, or registration for a draft that would include women, must be clear in their support or opposition. We have the experience of the Women's Committee to Oppose Conscription to instruct and guide us.

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