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    'Government Girls':
    World War II's
    Army of the Potomac

    By Megan Rosenfeld
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, May 10, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

        Two women
    Chris Prouty, left, and Joanne Ott pose in front of the Q Street house that they rented for a few weeks in 1943. (Family photo)
    At the end of June 1943, my mother, Chris Prouty, arrived in Washington to help win the war. She was 22, and came equipped with her new college degree, $50, some friends who had an apartment, and a pair of black patent leather pumps she'd bought with a No. 17 ration coupon. It was more than enough.

    Within two weeks she had a "wonderful job" working for the Senate subcommittee on war mobilization, preparing a "secret" report on food supplies out of an office in the Department of Agriculture. It wasn't the Red Cross job she and her friends had dreamed of – that was the only way they knew of for young women to get overseas – but it was war related, and it was here, and who could ask for more?

    Washington was the center of the universe in those days, filled to overflowing with newcomers here to help beat "the Krauts" and "the Japs." Thousands of the new arrivals were women, come to be clerks, secretaries, assistants, Navy WAVES, Army WACs, and Coast Guard SPARS.

    If the soldiers were our "boys" overseas, these women were the "government girls" at home. Good Housekeeping magazine featured them in a fashion spread in January 1942:

    "There's a new army on the Potomac – the bright-eyed, fresh-faced young Americans who have poured into Washington from remote farms, sleepy little towns, and the confusion of cities, to work for the government in a time of national emergency. Every morning they flow, like bright rivers, into the maws of the great buildings."

    Actually, they were more likely to flow into overcrowded rooms, instant offices in commandeered warehouses and apartment buildings, and hastily constructed temporary structures on the Mall. But the article noted that many of them did wear the "classic white rayon shirt with convertible collar Uncle Sam's girls love" ($3.50), modeled by Clara Carter of Springfield, Ill., a "tall and serious secretary in the Safety Division, Civil Aeronautics Authority," who was posed, inevitably, against a backdrop of the Capitol building. Good Housekeeping was taken by the fact that each of the war girls "wore a watch that keeps the correct time."

    The women changed Washington in ways they were largely unaware of. Their youth, competence, energy, enthusiasm and problems were sometimes disconcerting to the wider world, unaccustomed to working women but unable to manage the war effort without their help. Newspaper stories tended to portray them as glamorous but lonely, still longing for the husband and children who would someday call them back to their place.

    "They get wonderful jobs, but they can't get a wonderful man," went one such story, recounted in a recent issue of Washington History magazine. Each new "First Woman" in the city was announced in print in astonished tones, as she learned to weld, or to carry mail, drive trucks, shoot rifles, fly planes or watch for enemy aircraft.

    "They are just as good as men, and just as dependable," said Frank P. Payne of the Firestone tire store at 623 H St. NW, in a 1943 story headlined "Girl Garage Mechanics Enjoy 'Tossing Monkey Wrenches.' "

    The first woman meat cutter was Theresia Koppers. The first woman bus driver was Dorthy Berlett (no mention was made of the fact that her employer, the Capitol Transit Co., needed women workers because they refused to hire the many available black men).

    There was something about these women that bothered the older bureaucrats and disturbed the Southern proprieties Washington was accustomed to. They were chastised for failing to wear hats and gloves at all times, for letting their hair "go at loose ends," allowing the seams of their stockings to be twisted, failing to freshen their lipstick often enough. No less a personage than Washington's mayor, one Fletcher Bowran, told the D.C. Council he was distressed by by the number of women he'd seen wearing slacks.

    A "period of lax morals" – not necessarily related to the wearing of slacks – was predicted by the superintendent of St. Elizabeths Hospital for the post-war era.

    For Chris Prouty, who actually did work in the Capitol when she wasn't at Agriculture, wartime was about as exciting and glamorous as she could imagine. It was so for many of the women – they were far from home, and typing and filing that otherwise would have been mundane and tedious were given a noble purpose by national need.

    Prouty wrote regularly to her mother in Pasadena, Calif.:

      I discover that I am now Jr. Economist for the Sub-Committee on War Mobilization. . . . So now I wear a badge "WPB" and take the D2 Glover Park bus every a.m., transfer to the Bureau of Engraving car and get out with millions of other people at the Dept of Ag, take the elevator to the 4th floor, say Good Morning to Joan Pascal and Mr. Gold and read the a.m. paper for half an hour. . . . Joan is a wonderful, wonderful girl. . . . I feel she's going to be a great friend.

      I make phone calls like this: "Mr. Chapman? This is Miss Prouty of the Kilgore Committee. What are your recent estimates on tobacco supply for 1943?" He says, "Miss Prouty . . . those figures are confidential . . . wait a minute please – did I understand you to say that this is the Senate War Mobilization Committee?" I say "Yes, and we need those figures immediately." "Ok – we'll send them right away."

      I love love love this job.

    In the evenings, if they weren't out dancing at the Elks Club, many government girls were bent on self-improvement. Prouty and her friends volunteered with a group working to eliminate the poll tax, and she took a course in Russian. She got involved with the National Council of Negro Women and drafted letters and speeches for Mary McLeod Bethune. Her letters record regular blood donations (three by year's end), performances in amateur theatricals, constant moves from one overcrowded apartment to another, dates to lectures and movies, and visits from friends in the military.

    Her salary was about $2,000 a year; most "government girls" earned $1,440. She listed her expenses in a letter:

      $80 every two weeks. bond deduction: $9.67; $25 rent, $8 food, $5 to Red Cross and $2.50 for bus pass. I have $9.83 in my checking account.

    She picked up some extra money with odd jobs, like the $50 she got helping a writer research a story for Reader's Digest. When it appeared in November of 1944, she was appalled at its patronizing tone, which was typical of the coverage the young women got in those days.

    Titled "28 Acres of Girls," the article described Arlington Farms, a federally funded project nicknamed "Girl Town," built to house 8,000 women, each of whom paid $24.50 a month for a single room:

    "So popular are its glamorous buildings, full of Venetian blinds and the chintz dear to so many female hearts, that 90 percent of new Government girls want to move in. . . . [M]ost Girl Towners are slick chicks and bobby soxers in their teens and 20s. They left small towns or farms because they wanted to see the world, because the war had taken their boyfriends, or through sheer patriotism. . . . Washington, their jobs and Girl Town have them in a daze of excitement – eating seafood for the first time, seeing Eleanor, wearing high heels, discovering that hotels wrap sugar lumps in paper. But they turn into young cosmopolitans after a few months of grown-up life and responsibility."

    It was Prouty who'd unearthed the statistics that the "girls" consumed 4,000 hot dogs a day and 300 dozen pies, cakes and doughnuts.

    In truth, Reader's Digest was coming late to a story everyone else had already written: the incredible shortage of decent housing in Washington during the war. The buildup began in the late 1930s; in 1940, the year the Civil Service started recruiting heavily for defense workers, more than 24,000 women entered government service, according to Scott Hart's "Washington at War." In 1942, the overall population of Washington increased by a quarter of a million people. One account reported that 300 people arrived in Washington every day; another said it was 1,000.

    "10,000 rooms needed here for women," read a headline in The Washington Post on Jan. 2, 1943, ". . . the girls are not so welcome roomers as men, officials said."

    Women were considered more likely to hog the bathrooms and telephones, blow fuses with their irons, get lipstick on the towels, hang up laundry and entertain in the living rooms of boardinghouses.

    At one point, as many as 10,000 boarding houses were operating in the swollen city. Some were for women only; others were for men and women. Boarding and rooming houses were touted as an economical way to have the comforts of home as well as a wholesome source of friends. But conditions in many were claustrophobic and run-down, and there were often strict rules about when you could come home and with whom.

    For women like Chris Prouty, who joined with pals from Antioch College to rent an apartment, life was more like a peripatetic, 1940s version of "Friends." They were kicked out of their first house because the landlady didn't want five tenants; their second place, at 2206 Q St. NW, evaporated after a few weeks when the owner returned from military service. The Washington Daily News captured their moving day in a typically corny photo-feature, picturing nine young women carrying bags and boxes as they left the house. The story quoted a poem the women had concocted:

    If anyone should come around here –
    Around here lookin' for me –
    I'm out in Dupont Circle
    Sleeping under a sour apple tree. . .

    Instead, three of them moved to Naylor Gardens in Southeast, to the comparative luxury of three rooms and their own bath – although "the bathtub has all the enamel off it and it looks diseased," Prouty wrote. She reported in her letters a busy life of parties, visits from wounded soldier friends, her concerns about her brother in the Marines, hitchhiking to New York, going to free lectures at the Library of Congress, and putting on concerts and plays with a group called Washington Workshop.

    Within a year of her arrival, Prouty had worked on several studies for Sen. Harley Kilgore's committee, like "the relation of farm policy to foreign policy." And she'd met a guy from New York and married him, scandalizing both their families because he was Jewish and she wasn't.

    Three months after their April 21 courthouse wedding (her entire outfit cost $54), her new husband, Gene Rosenfeld, was transferred by the Office of War Information to London. For a year, she waited to join him, occupying herself with a series of jobs and political work. And on April 16, 1944, she stood with thousands of others and watched the funeral cortege of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose death nearly brought the city to a standstill.

    That summer she made it to England, crossing the Atlantic on an unconverted troop ship. The couple saw the war out in London, unknowingly setting a pattern for their future lives traveling around the world with the United States Information Agency. Today they live in Georgetown, a few blocks from where they first met. Chris Prouty Rosenfeld is – among other roles and activities – a trustee of the D.C. Public Library.

    Looking back, she will always be glad to have joined the force of Government Girls. "We all had a good time being patriotic," she says. "It was certainly a life-changing experience. I learned a lot, I got married – and I never went back to California."

    There is a coda to her story, which helps tie history to a new generation, as stories often do. She remained friends with Joan Pascal, her first colleague in Washington. Prouty had four children – including this writer – and so did Pascal, who married a lawyer named Monroe Karasik. Some 50 years after their mothers had met in wartime Washington, Prouty's son Steven and Joan's daughter Judy became reacquainted in adulthood, and fell in love. Today, the government girls share a grandson, Theodore Monroe Karasik Rosenfeld.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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