WACs, WASPs, and WAVEs
The narratives of women in popular song changed greatly over the course of the second world war moving from feeling left behind and bemoaning life at home to taking an active role in war and romance. Many popular songs centering on women or from the perspective of a woman from 1941-42 discuss romance during the war, especially the departure of a partner and ensuing separation. The protaganist in "I Don't Want to Walk Without You" sings,
All our friends keep knocking at the door
They've asked me out a hundred times or more
But all I say is, "Leave me in the gloom"
And here I stay within my lonely room.
Along with the initial pangs of separation many songs dealt with fear of infidelity. In some instances a man gone away would be demanding his lover stay true as in the immensely popular "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone But Me)." In others a woman would pledge her faithfulness as in "I'll Be True While You're Gone." Another trend that began in the early part of the war and continued through is civilian women pursuing servicemembers and vice versa. The narratives in these songs range from romance by happenstance such as a soldier falling for a USO volunteer in "I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen" to the seeming irresistibility of servicemen in "They Go Goo-Goo Ga-Ga Goofy Over Gobs." While at the start of the war female protaganists in popular song were solely goodbye-ing, missing, and dreaming of their departed servicemembers, by mid-war women began to be recognized as integral active drivers of the war-effort, and this was reflected in song.
1942 saw the creation of the first service branches for women in the military beyond nursing, the Women's Auxillary Army Corps (WAAC) and its naval analog, the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) and airborn division, the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). While WAAC garnered robust enlistments with over 35,000 applications in its first year, these quickly dropped off due to unequal pay, benefits, and a growing sexist and homophobic slander campaign against it back at home. In 1943 the branches were restructured and some of the concerns about pay and benefits were addressed as the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and the WAFS became the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Despite resistance from many fronts, women in the U.S. Armed Forces worked as pilots, drivers, mechanics, linguists, communications specialists, and sheet metal workers among many other roles and their newly-visible presence in the military was noted in song.
In 1944 Broadway Composer Frank Loesser, who had already penned some of the biggest songs of the war, "The Ballad of Roger Young" and "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" wrote and produced a musical for the Army Special Services centering on WAC's (as the enlisted service members were known), P.F.C. Mary Brown. The musical follows a greek goddess' trip to earth to enlist with the WACs wherein she ditches her name Pallas for "Mary Brown." Over the course of the musical Mary Brown asserts herself against her dismissive husband Jupiter by throwing herself into the work of enlisted life for the love of country. Throughout, there are many reversals of established tropes of the war such as the number wherein a WAC returns to a fretting husband. The title song, "P.F.C. Mary Brown", which was recorded by Perry Como and others. The song mixes recognition of women in expanded service roles with a focus on enlisted womens' romantic appeal as in suggesting that P.F.C stood for "Perfect Feminine Charm" rather than Private First Class and that ASN meant "Angel, 'Specially Nice" rather than Army Serial Number.
Despite P.F.C. Mary Brown playing into many stereotypes of the day, in songs such as "There's a Fellow Waiting in Poughkeepsie" one can see a pronounced reversal of the earlier romantic tropes of wartime popular song. The song's protaganist light-heartedly bemoans the men who are waiting on her to return as she sings,
There’s a feller waitin’ in Poughkeepsie
And he’s just as sweet as sweet can be
He hasn’t even been tipsy
Since I left him and took to the sea
There’s another waitin’ in Pomona
With the cutest dimple in his chin
And there’s a guy in Daytona
Who just waits for my ship to come in
This assertive take where a woman is now the one non-chalantly leaving her love to serve her country circulated widely and was recorded by The Andrews Sisters, Johnny Mercer, and June Hutton. While a great deal of popular music from the Second World War does not feature women in an active role, as women became more widely-visible as a driving force in the armed services and production at home popular song began to respond in kind.
All of the songs discussed in this article are part of the Keesing collection and can be found in "Recordings."
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library."Members of the Women's Army Corps identifying incorrectly addressed mail for soldiers, Post Locator Department, Camp Breckinridge", 1943; Cover of P.F.C. Mary Brown, Frank Loesser, 1944; "African American Charity Adams, First Officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, standing in uniform and pointing to a poster that reads, "Women! Answer America's Call, Serve in the W.A.A.C."", 1943.