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Laura McEnaney on: Women's Role in Civil Defense
Laura McEnaney Q: What role did women play in civil defense?

LM: The basis of civil defense was self-help, and family self-help in particular. And women, women's groups believed that they were the best personnel to perform this work because they were custodians of the family according to the traditional gender stereotypes of the time. And so they could be the custodians of the family during nuclear attack, and that it was a very appropriate role for them to take on, especially when the country was in the midst of a cold war...

They argued that they had a rightful place in the civil defense establishment, that this shouldn't be a male-only affair, this shouldn't be only about military preparedness in the sense that only men could participate, that if civil defense was premised on family self help, then women should actually take fifty percent, if not more, of the responsibility for doing this, for protecting the family.

Q: And what did, how did Truman's administration respond to the women's demands that they be given a role in civil defense?

LM: Well initially, the Truman administration gave very little thought to what women were going to do.. And since the government wasn't prepared to define the role for women, women decided to define the role for themselves. And they argued that they could play a very important role in terms of providing welfare services, for example. Because in the aftermath of a nuclear attack, of course, people would need medical care, psychological counseling, food, clothing, shelter, and these voluntary women's organizations argued that they were already set up to provide the kind of welfare services that only women could provide. And so they really took charge and they led the civil defense administration to define women's role. So it really came from the bottom up, not from the top down.

Q: One way that the Truman Administration encouraged women to take part in civil defense was as "gossips." Can you talk about that?

LM: Throughout the 1950s, there was an emphasis on women teaching others to prepare for nuclear war. And one of the things that the civil defense establishment did was appoint female civil defense administrators. There was one during the Truman administration and there were several during the Eisenhower administration. And in fact, there was a national women's civil defense advisory council. And if you read the literature and the speeches of these female representatives, of the FCDA, all of them argued that gossip could be a tool, that women were very good at gossiping, talking to their neighbors. And that in fact, spreading the word about civil defense was nothing different than gossiping to one's neighbors about what was going on in the neighborhood, about different techniques in child care, about new cleaning techniques, that this was a very natural extension of women's work. And in fact actually that was the pitch that women administrators in the FCDA.

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