#Reviewing The Girls Next Door

The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines. Kara Dixon Vuic.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

In The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines, Kara Dixon Vuic examines American women’s work in wartime recreation and entertainment from World War I to the Gulf War. She argues the women and their work were significant not only because they defined wartime gender roles, but also because they helped “maintain an effective fighting force” and rally support from the public.[1] These women literally brought the home front to the front lines. Vuic constructs her argument by tracing the evolution of female wartime entertainment work and how American values during each conflict shaped the women’s experiences and work. She contends women working with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Red Cross, and United Service Organizations (USO) had to “walk a fine line between demure reminders of women from home and blatant sexual appeal.”[2] They needed to remind soldiers of the type of woman that they were fighting to protect and uphold soldiers’ morals.

At the same time, the military and agencies such as the Red Cross encouraged these women to distract the soldiers enough to deter them from engaging with prostitutes. After the Vietnam War, the military shifted from a conscripted force to an all-volunteer army, which included more women and soldiers of different ethnic backgrounds. The move to an all-volunteer military prompted changes in female wartime recreation work and led military officials to recruit servicewomen to provide morale support, which included programs for soldiers’ wives and children. These new programs addressed the growing diversity of the military and addressed the fact that most soldiers were married with families in the late twentieth century. 

Yet, Vuic claims the military and the public still wanted American women to provide entertainment to troops. She suggests that the military should move past over-sexualized entertainment and reconsider the historically examples of Club women and Donut Dollies.[3]  The Red Cross Club women, who hosted parties and served food at local Red Cross clubs, and the American Red Cross Donut Dollies, named for their smiles and donut service during the Vietnam War, offered entertainment that was wholesome and reminded the soldiers of home unlike the USO, today, providing NFL cheerleaders as performers.[4]

The Girls Next Door provides context for the concerns of military officials and the public during wartime. During World War I, the government, and later private organizations, began offering recreational services for soldiers to promote gender norms and the ideals of middle-class citizenship.[5] As part of this progressive effort, the military argued manhood was linked to the soldier’s ability to refrain from sexual activity. The recreation women provided entertainment and a distraction for the soldiers. Their femininity represented American womanhood and served as an idealized image of what soldiers were defending.

As Vuic studied each conflict, she discussed background for concerns of military officials and the public. By the Korean War, the female wartime entertainers served as an image of Cold War domesticity. Unlike previous Red Cross or USO women, the work of these Cold War entertainers was part of the military’s attempt to make a peacetime drafted standing army acceptable to the public by shaping the soldiers into “democratic citizens.” [6]  The military encouraged soldiers to uphold sexual morality and military officials saw the Red Cross and USO women’s work as formative in shaping soldiers into future fathers of American nuclear families.[7] Vuic notes that by the 1990s military officials and the public no longer saw female wartime entertainers as surrogate female family members such as mothers or sisters, but, even so, women still danced for soldiers.[8]

Throughout The Girls Next Door, Vuic reveals several personal experiences of female wartime entertainers where they questioned their roles and considered their independence. During World War I, one YMCA canteen worker explained that she felt her work was more than she had expected, and, over the course of her assignment, she wrote that she was growing more independent. She believed the female canteen workers should have been able to move into combat-zones with the troops they served.[9] Other women also began questioning military policy and gender norms of their times. In the first half of the twentieth century, the military segregated units by race, and, although agencies like the Red Cross operated the recreation programs, entertainment remained segregated. Many African American female wartime entertainers saw their service as patriotic and during World War II,  part of the Double V campaign.[10]

Vuic further explores how wartime experience created self-assured female wartime recreation workers. During World War II, the Red Cross and USO women gained new life experiences such as learning how to upkeep and maintain vehicles while maintaining their appeal. World War II created an environment that allowed Rosie the Riveters to enter wartime industrial jobs that were once closed to women. Similarly, the war created a need for Red Cross and USO entertainers, who would need to serve closer to the frontlines than before and in remote locations. The military wanted these women to be the right kind of woman: single, young, and college-educated with middle-class values. These women were able to serve closer to the frontlines and in remote locations. Many female entertainment workers from the Vietnam War era believed their wartime experiences gave them purpose and self-fulfillment. Vuic explains that some of these women had a difficult time adjusting to life after their service. For instance, some of the Donut Dollies and USO women viewed their recreation work as part of the feminist movement.[11]  By the end of the twentieth century, wartime entertainment work shifted, and servicewomen increasingly worked to meet the morale needs of a more diverse volunteer army.[12] 

Unlike Paul Kennedy, Charles Hill, and other scholars who study grand strategy, Vuic’s work highlights the importance of lower-plane strategy. She asserts the female entertainers were essential to upholding the morale of a conscripted military and later a volunteer force. In addition, she traces how the women maintained the gender norms of the time and American values. She explains that during World War I, military officials wanted to preserve martial masculinity and turned to the female entertainers, who offered entertainment and represented domesticity. These women embodied appropriate relationship with American women rather than illicit ones with foreign women. These female wartime recreation workers were a vital component to American strategy, contributing to morale while preserving morals.

Vuic’s work provides another avenue for studying gender ideology and women’s work during war. While she has added to this history, she relies on her previous work on nurses to analyze other female wartime workers. During the 2000s, nursing historians like Vuic and Margarete Sandelowski argued that war created an opportunity for female nurses to assert more independence. Similarly, Vuic claims that war provided the setting for female entertainers to gain autonomy and seek out more independence. She has pushed the narrative past nurses to other female wartime workers and further emphasizes the importance of women in war. In addition, Vuic explores race and how segregation and desegregation in the military shaped these minority women’s work. Vuic has produced a well-researched and accessible book that is a necessary read for gender historians, especially those interested in the relationship of war and conflict to the construction of gender norms.

Nancy Traylor-Heard earned her PhD from Mississippi State University in 2018. She currently teaches American history at West Georgia Technical College and serves as the vice-president of the Southern Association for the History of Medicine and Science. Her research interests include the history of medicine and the American homefront during twentieth-century conflicts.

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Header Image: Doughnut Dollies replaced the Doughnut Girls in World War II, as once again doughnuts were trotted out to soldiers as a fresh, hot reminder of the homefront they were fighting for. (Time/AP)


[1] Kara Dixon Vuic, The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 3.

[2] Ibid., 62

[3] Ibid., 271.

[4] Ibid., 270.

[5] Ibid., 14.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] Ibid., 147.

[8] Ibid., 266-267.

[9] Ibid., 8-9.

[10] Ibid., 128. The Double V campaign was a movement that stemmed from a James Thompson's phrase "Democracy-Double Victory, At Home-Abroad" that appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African American newspaper. African American soldiers and female wartime workers picked up the banner of the Double V campaign to call for victory over fascism abroad and racism in the United States. The campaign is often linked to the early Civil Rights Movement. For more information on the Double V campaign, see: Rawn James, Jr. , The Double V: How Wars, Protest, and Harry Truman Desegregated America's Military (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013); Lawrence P. Scott and William M. Womack, Double V: The Civil Rights Struggle of the Tuskegee Airmen (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1998); Ronald Takaki, Double Victory: A Multicultural History of America in World War II (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 2001).

[11] Ibid., 235.

[12] Ibid., 241.