UPDATE: Gueli’s talk has been rescheduled, for Wednesday, May 18. See our website for more information about her book.
On Wednesday, March 16, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society will host Cindy Gueli for a noon brown bag. She’ll be speaking about her book, Lipstick Brigade: The Untold True Story of Washington’s World War II Government Girls. Join us for this free event (but pre-register here if possible), or simply read on to learn more about one episode pitting the women against some Members of Congress.
–by Cindy Gueli
They were young. Most were single. They were colloquially known as Government Girls. And during World War II, this clerical corps almost 200,000 strong kept Washington’s federal agencies functioning. The massive bureaucratic demands of running a war sent recruiters all over the country seeking adventurous young women willing to relocate to the nation’s capital. Joining the war effort as a civilian or with the military offered women a chance to patriotically serve their country and explore personal and professional prospects for the future. Over the course of the war, Government Girls would turn the usually sedate capital into a rollicking boomtown.
However, not everyone was happy with the thousands of young women let loose in Washington. Conflicts over expectations of how these women—most in their early twenties—should dress, act, and socialize erupted between barrier-breaking Government Girls and more conservative local and federal officials. One such public battle originated in Congress.
Representative Earl Wilson (R-IN), a former high school principal, viewed
Government Girls’ unrestrained social lives as both improper for respectable young women and detrimental to the war effort. In 1942 he proposed a 10 pm nightly curfew for all (and only) female federal workers. This, he claimed, would keep the women “healthier, frisky and fine.” He suggested that boarding house owners and federal dorm managers could enforce the women’s bedtime.
Outraged Government Girls responded immediately by calling Wilson an “ogre” in the press and labeling the curfew as “childish, ridiculous, and impossible.” Instead of blaming women’s wild social lives for lagging productivity and worker exhaustion, they suggested Wilson investigate terrible housing and transportation conditions, inadequate training, and long hours with reduced lunch breaks. Wilson dismissed the women’s complaints and condemned their resistance as “thinking only of their own pleasure.”
Congressional debates over the issue crossed party and gender lines. Rep. Clare Hoffman (R-MI) supported the curfew because she once saw Government Girls smoking and fixing their nails outside of an office building. Congressmen Karl Stefan (R-NE) and Robert Ramspeck (D-GA) agreed that Government Girls lacked a sense of wartime urgency and supported a thorough investigation.
On the other side of the argument, Hattie Caraway (D-AR)—the only woman in the Senate—was the most ardent defender of Government Girls. She argued: “If the girls are old enough to be away from home to work here, they ought to be able to take care of themselves.” Caraway was backed by Congressmen Jennings Randolph (D-WV) and Victor Wickersham (D-OK) who spoke out against strict regulations because Government Girls were the backbone of the federal agencies.
As no hard evidence existed to support Wilson’s allegations, his attempt to rein in Government Girls like misbehaving schoolgirls failed. The women’s social lives would continue to cause local and official consternation throughout the war. However, Congress would make no more attempts to control them. Over half of all wartime workers who came to D.C. stayed in the city after the war. Former Government Girls found postwar clerical work within every department of the federal government, including the legislative offices on Capitol Hill.
Related: more information on one building where Government Girls lived in DC.
Gueli is an author and media professional who worked as a consultant on Showtime’s The Untold History of The United States, a reporter and producer for Associated Press Television News, VH1, and A&E, and host of the web series “Scandalous Washington.” She has written and lectured widely on American social, cultural, and pop culture history. She received a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and a master’s degree in communications and master’s and doctorate degrees in history from American University. For more about Gueli and Washington’s Lipstick Brigade, visit her website or find her on Twitter @historybyte.