Florence Orbach remembers hunkering down in her bathtub in her one-room efficiency on U Street in Northwest Washington during World War II. She wasn't worried about German bombs. She had a roommate problem.
"She turned out to be a pathological liar and a nymphomaniac," says Orbach, now 81. "I ended up having to sleep in the bathtub when she'd bring a sailor home. It was a little bit crazy."
Orbach, a Silver Spring resident, whose maiden name was Simon, is one of several women featured in "Government Girls of World War II," a locally made documentary about the women who flocked to Washington from towns big and small, to help in the war effort. The film premieres today at the Museum of the City of Washington and will air on WETA on July 1.
Working in steno pools, factories and at top-secret decoding assignments, these women answered the call to fill jobs during the war. Those years in Washington helped inspire a revolution. Before the war, about 22 percent of women worked outside the home, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, the figure stands at 56 percent.
"They were sort of the first wave of women who entered the workforce in numbers and made things possible for women like me, and women younger than me, to have economic opportunity they would not have otherwise had," says Leslie Sewell, 61, who produced the 60-minute film for about $150,000.
It is Sewell's first documentary, two years in the making. She previously worked 15 years as a producer for "NBC Nightly News" and before that as the Washington bureau chief for National Public Radio.
"I like to do stories about people whose stories don't get told that often," she says. "When I was at NBC covering Congress, I'd done a lot of pieces on politicians, people whose stuff gets told all the time."
The film mixes talking heads with archival footage showing women working, dancing with servicemen and shopping downtown. "They walked four abreast in the streets," a narrator in the film says, reading from a 1942 New York Times article. "They chatter like magpies in the streetcars and buses. Most of them smoke cigarettes, lots of them like a cocktail. They like their jobs."
The film recounts what it was like for women living with several roommates and paying about $40 a month rent. Nearly 10,000 were housed in 10 buildings on the 104-acre Arlington Farms complex near the Pentagon, nicknamed "Girl Town."
The "government girls" altered the workplace and opened doors, changing the social fiber of America, the film argues. But as grateful as the country was for their efforts in the war, some men felt threatened.
"It's okay now, but what about after the war," one man laments on camera. "The woman will have all the jobs."
For many of the women, Washington was an eye opener, full of life and opportunity; but it had its downside.
"I discovered the ugly side of Washington," Orbach says. She was particularly struck by the way blacks were treated at People's drugstores in downtown Washington.
Orbach, who is white, says, "People's was not very nice to people. What they had was a long counter. White people could sit on the stools, and up to a point, then the stools disappeared and the black people had to stand and order the food or stand and eat there. I thought, 'That's horrible.' "
That experience later prompted her to become active in the civil rights movement, picketing businesses and marching in protests. Orbach, who worked as a secretary at the Pentagon during the war, went on to raise a family and work for the Montgomery County Department of Social Services as a secretary and later as a caseworker.
Discrimination was no stranger to Dorothy Height, then a young black woman working with the National Council of Negro Women to help arrange government jobs.
In the film, she recounts her visit to the Woodward & Lothrop department store in downtown Washington and how the white clerk told her that a white linen suit she was interested in was probably too expensive.
"I decide I'm going to buy this suit even if it is $40," she recalls. "Reluctantly she put me in a dressing room, but she locked the door." When Height got out, she bought the suit.
On the job front, some government girls were involved in subversive missions.
Elizabeth McIntosh, who was a reporter for Scripps Howard, quit in 1943 to join the U.S. Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA. Able to speak some Japanese, she went off to India and China.
McIntosh, 89, tells about one instance in which the Americans seized about a hundred postcards in Burma that Japanese soldiers had written for family back home.
The postcards, written in pencil, conveyed that all was well, that they were proud to be fighting for the emperor and victory was at hand. McIntosh says the Americans erased the words and wrote in Japanese that Japan was losing the war and things were going badly -- all with hopes of demoralizing the folks back home.
After the war, she married and worked briefly for Glamour magazine before going on to a variety of jobs, including at the Voice of America and the United Nations. McIntosh, who lives in Leesburg, also wrote books, "Undercover Girl," which was published shortly after the war, and "Sisterhood of Spies," which was completed about two years ago.
When the war was over, many women left their jobs and returned to roles as homemakers. But the job market had forever changed.
William Chafe, a history professor at Duke University, comments in the film that some soldiers returning from war were in for an awakening. "Suddenly the notion that 'I'm back, I'm a man, now I want your full attention' " didn't sit well with some women, he says. The response from many women, he says, was: " 'I've been getting along without you just fine. Maybe you need to think about changing some of your ideas and patterns.' "
As for Orbach's roommate: In the film, Orbach explains that the woman ran off with a high-ranking serviceman.
"She never returned. I never found out what happened to her."
Researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.