History Highlight – Women Veterans and the WWII GI Bill of Rights
On June 22, 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act,” better known as the “G.I. Bill of Rights.” This popular piece of legislation, which included educational benefits, low-interest home and business loans, employment assistance and unemployment benefits for returning World War II (WWII) veterans, had a huge impact on the lives of millions of veterans. By offering to help pay for veterans’ educations, the G.I. Bill made a college degree attainable to a broader segment of American society. Historians have long acknowledged the impact of the G.I. Bill on the post-war lives and careers of the 2,232,000 male veterans who went to college on the bill, but what of the 64,728 servicewomen who attended college under the program? How did their college experiences shape their post-war lives in an era when most women were expected to get married and concentrate on raising families?1
The reaction of returning soldiers to the educational benefits provided by the G.I. Bill surprised college administrators, who had predicted that, at most, 1 million veterans would be interested in attending college. More than 2 million former servicemen and women, however, flocked to colleges and universities across the country. Women veterans, it turned out, were even more interested than their male counterparts in obtaining a college degree; more than 19.5% of 332,178 eligible women veterans elected to attend college after the war as compared to 15% of 15 million eligible male veterans.2
Were women veterans more ambitious than their male counterparts?–not necessarily. While millions of men were drafted into the service during WWII, the relatively small number of women who served were all volunteers, and the women’s services were able to select only the best of these–women with proven aptitude, skills and experience who wanted to contribute to the war effort. At least one college dean correctly anticipated the situation for women at the end of the war. Eunice Hilton, the Dean of Women at Syracuse University, explained in May 1945, “The problem of the woman veteran will be somewhat different from that of the man, for the outstanding reason that the women in the services are a specially selected group of all volunteers. … Seventy percent of the WAVES, SPARs, Women Marines and WACs are eligible for college level programs of study.”3
Veterans, who served more than 90 days, were entitled to one year of full-time training plus a period equal to their time in service up to a maximum of 48 months. The Veterans Administration (VA) paid the educational institution a maximum of $500 a year for tuition, books, fees and other training costs. If a veteran wanted to attend a school for which the tuition was higher, such as an Ivy League school, he or she had to pay the difference. The VA also paid the single veteran attending school full time a subsistence allowance of up to $50 a month. This was increased to $65 a month in 1946 and to $75 a month in 1948. Allowances for veterans with dependents were higher. As long as a veteran went to school full time, he or she could supplement the VA living allowance by working part time. In the case of individuals with full-time jobs who wanted to attend school part time, the government paid tuition only.4
The 2 million veterans, the vast majority male, who opted to take advantage of the educational benefits provided by the G.I. Bill, inundated college campuses during the late 1940s and early 1950s. For the most part, colleges welcomed veteran students. Colleges liked the guaranteed tuition payments they received from the VA, and did not want to risk the unfavorable publicity that would invariably ensue if they rejected too many veteran students. As a result, institutions of higher learning were filled to capacity and had little room for non-veteran students, many of whom were women. Overall, the educational level of American women declined during these years, making the women veterans who chose to go to college under the G.I. Bill a very privileged group.5 Who were these women and what motivated them to attend college? What did they do with their college degrees once they had them in hand? What effect, if any, did their G.I. Bill educations have on the course of their lives? The following stories and reminiscences begin to answer these questions.
The G.I. Bill had a positive impact on the lives of thousands of women veterans; and they, just like men, used their educational benefits to pursue professional careers that would otherwise have been unavailable to many of them given their family finances. Regardless of whether or not these women eventually opted to get married and have families, their G.I. Bill educations expanded their horizons, and often those of their families as well.
Many women of this era dreamed of becoming nurses and teachers, but it was frequently difficult for working-class families to send their daughters away to college or nursing school. The cost of room and board as well as tuition for the three to four years it took to get a professional degree was expensive. Young women who could not afford to live away from home often opted to attend local trade or business schools to prepare for jobs in their hometown. The lives of millions of young people changed course during WWII. They left their communities when they joined the service and when they returned home, they enjoyed a myriad of new possibilities. All of a sudden, dreams once considered out of reach became feasible.
TECH4 Pauline (Minton) Cathcart, WAAC/WAC
Pauline (Minton) Cathcart, a native of Russellville, AR, graduated from high school in 1941 and attended beauty school, finishing the program a year later. She was working as a beautician when she decided to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1943. She wanted to do something to help the war effort, and “I liked the way the WAACs looked in their uniforms.” Her first assignment was to Pine Bluff Arsenal, AR, where she developed photographs of ammunition and typed identifying captions. She transferred from the WAAC to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. “After 22 months at Pine Bluff,” said Cathcart, “I was given the opportunity to volunteer for overseas service and grabbed it.” She was sent to Ft. Oglethorpe, GA, for overseas training and then accompanied her unit to Australia as a proofreader of translated captured documents. By V-J day, she had reached the rank of TECH4 and was serving in the Philippines. When she returned home, Cathcart began nurse’s training but decided to get a degree in elementary education instead. She started her teaching career in 1951 and ultimately married a veteran who had also served in the Philippines. She retired after a 30-year career in the classroom.6
YN3 Norma (Larson) Erickson, WAVES
When Norma (Larson) Erickson graduated from high school in 1937, she dreamed of a nursing career, but her family could not afford to send her to nurse’s training. She took a job as a file clerk at an optical company; but after four years, she felt restless and took a new job as a receptionist and switchboard operator. “I liked this new job better,” said Erickson, “because I felt it was more people oriented. I was able to help people solve their problems by connecting them to the right person.” The war started right after she changed jobs, and Erickson made a point of contributing to the war effort in every way she could. “I volunteered for the Red Cross and bought as many war bonds as I could, but I still felt I should be doing more, so in 1944 I joined the WAVES.”
Her indoctrination training was at Hunter College, NYC. She still longed to be a nurse but not long after arriving at Hunter College a bad experience at sickbay while seeking treatment for an earache convinced her that she did not want to train as a hospital corpsman. Instead, Erickson trained as a yeoman and was assigned to Naval Air Station Alameda, CA, where she was responsible for assembling packets of information for downed airmen, telling them where “friendlies” were located. “I loved that job,” she said. “I knew I was making a direct contribution to the war effort just as I had wanted to do.” YN3 Erickson was discharged in 1946 and used the G.I. Bill to finally attend nursing school. She got married four days after graduation, but worked as a nurse part time while her children were young and eventually returned to work full time.7
SK1 Frances Jean (Brannum) Nichols, WAVES
Although the vast majority of women veterans who trained under the G.I. Bill graduated with degrees in teaching and nursing, some former servicewomen opted to try less traditional career paths. When Frances Jean (Brannum) Nichols graduated from high school in Chicago, she longed to go to college and study journalism. She had been the editor of her class year book and her guidance counselor told her about the University of Missouri’s journalism program, which was highly regarded. Nichols knew that her father, who supported the family by working as a barber, could not afford to send his children to college. So she got a job at the 1st National Bank of Chicago and took night courses at a local business college. In 1942, Nichols began attending Northwestern University at night. “I had it all figured out, if I continued attending classes at night, I could have a bachelor’s degree in English in ten years.” Then she noticed some WAVES working as staff personnel at the college, where the Navy had a program for male officers. When she turned 20, Nichols joined the Navy and went to Hunter College, NYC, for basic training; and then she went to Milledgeville, GA, for storekeeper training. She did so well there that the Navy kept her in Milledgeville as a teacher. By the time Nichols was discharged in 1946, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do; attend the University of Missouri as a journalism major.” While at the university, Nichols met a fellow veteran majoring in engineering and the couple married in 1950, by which time both had graduated. They had two children and Nichols elected not to work until they had grown. “Then I took a job with the city newspaper,” said Nichols, “and I was thrilled to discover that I had retained all my knowledge and instincts, and was more than ready for the job!”8
Cpl Muriel Underwood, Women Marines
When WWII started, Muriel Underwood had a job running a mimeograph machine at the General Mills plant in Chicago. Bored and hoping for excitement, Underwood joined the Marines in 1943. Much to her chagrin, however, after basic training the Marines assigned Underwood to Miramar Marine Depot, CA, as a mimeograph machine operator. She became friends with a fellow Woman Marine who enjoyed painting as a hobby and Underwood was fascinated with her friend’s oil colors. The two decided to attend the San Diego School of Art in the evenings and Underwood was captivated by the art world. When she was discharged in 1946, Cpl Underwood decided to attend the Art Institute of Chicago on the G.I. Bill. “When I graduated, I found a job as a commercial artist with a company that produced text-books,” Underwood said. “I enjoyed my job and stayed with the company for 13 years and became the head of the art department. We developed the art for the books, as well as the art that promoted the books! I had six people working under me.” In 1965, Underwood’s company moved out of Chicago to an outlying suburb. “I didn’t drive,” said Underwood, “and I didn’t feel like disrupting my life, so I took a job supervising contract artists at a children’s book publishing company. After four years I asked for a raise and was told, ‘You are making good money for a woman in this company.’ I decided to leave the company and began freelancing, a decision I have never regretted.”9
LT Rosanna Morris, WAVES
The G.I. Bill provided undergraduate educations to the majority of veterans attending school under the program, but it also made it possible for some veterans to obtain advanced degrees. Louisiana State University (LSU) graduate Rosanna Morris was commissioned in the WAVES during WWII. “I had an unusual college major for a girl,” said Morris, “I was a math major!” By the time the war broke out, Morris had several years experience under her belt with the War and Manpower Commission. After officer’s training at Smith College in Northampton, MA, the Navy sent Morris to the Bureau of Ships in Washington, DC. “I was in charge of the distribution of electronic publications,” remembered Morris. She had always wanted to be an architect, but LSU did not have an architect program and her family could not afford to send her elsewhere to college. With the G.I. Bill, however, Morris could attend the school of her choice, and she opted to go to the University of California at Berkley for a graduate degree in architecture. Although the school was crowded, “there weren’t too many girls in the program,” said Morris. “I could probably count them on one hand.” Even though LCDR Morris’s G.I. Bill benefits ran out before she could finish her degree, she was able to get a government job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development where she spent her career involved in obtaining grants for urban renewal projects. “The G.I. Bill changed my life,” said Morris. “Without it, I still could have had a career in government, but not in urban renewal.”10
CPT Libby Radus, WAC
Libby Radus, 27, was working as a secretary to a rug buyer for R.H. Macy Company in New York City when the war broke out. She had never bothered to think about college because her father had lost his money during the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 1943, Radus decided that she wanted to do something for the war effort and she joined the WAC. She served as an officer and had a Top Secret clearance. “My job entailed keeping track of aircraft engines in every theater of the world, Radus said. “I was very satisfied and remained in this job throughout the rest of my service career, leaving the Army in March of 1946 as a captain with three years of service.” After she was demobilized, Radus and a friend traveled to Denver, CO, just to see the city they had heard so much about. Radus decided to use the G.I. Bill to attend the university there. Because she found her stipend was not enough to live on, Radus took a part-time job as secretary at the children’s speech clinic at the university. “This job opened up a whole new vista to me,” said Radus. “I became fascinated with speech and the importance of communication skills. I obtained my bachelor’s degree in speech and became the assistant administrator at the clinic. Then I continued on for my master’s degree, which I received in 1952. Both degrees were made possible by G.I. Bill benefits.” Radus eventually moved to Virginia to run a clinic near Hampton Roads, and during the early 1960s she took a leave of absence, attended school on a scholarship and earned her Ph.D. in speech therapy. She credits her rewarding career to the G.I. Bill.11
CPT Dovey (Johnson) Roundtree, WAAC/WAC
Dovey (Johnson) Roundtree, a native of Charlotte, NC, was a graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta and a protégée of the influential African American educator, Mary Macleod Bethune, when she was selected as a member of the first class of officer candidates of the WAAC in 1942. After the war, CPT Roundtree used the G.I. Bill to attend Howard University Law School. When she graduated with her law degree in 1950, there were only 83 black women lawyers in the United States compared to 6,165 white women. She established a law firm in northwest Washington, DC, to serve the black community there. During the course of her legal career, Roundtree handled several high-profile cases. Sarah Keys v. Carolina Coach Company, a landmark civil rights case involving bus travel across state lines, was decided by the Interstate Commerce Commission in November 1955, the same year as the more famous Rosa Parks incident, which involved a city bus. In its decision on Keyes, the ICC found the practice of designating separate seats for white and black interstate bus passengers to be “unjust discrimination and undue and unreasonable prejudice and disadvantage … and is therefore unlawful.”12
CAPT Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer, SPARs
A native of Boston, Eleanor C. L’Ecuyer joined the Coast Guard SPARs in 1944, right after graduating from college with a liberal arts degree. The Coast Guard trained her as a pharmacist’s mate and assigned her to the Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles, WA. She was discharged in 1946 and decided to use the G.I. Bill to attend Suffolk University Law School in Boston. When she graduated in 1950, she tried unsuccessfully to find a job “that would allow me to utilize my degree.” Although the G.I. Bill trained L’Ecuyer as a lawyer, it could not help find her a job in an era when most law firms shied away from hiring women as anything other than secretaries and clerks. It was her local Coast Guard office that inadvertently opened the door to her legal career. She saw an article in the newspaper that said the Coast Guard Reserve was looking for veterans who had received additional schooling for direct commissions. “I went to the personnel office to apply, and was told that the program in question applied only to males,” she said. “However, the office chief decided to let me take the exam anyway, assuming that, of course, I would fail. When I passed the test, they decided to send my papers to Washington, [DC,] and let them handle it.” On April 1, 1951, the Coast Guard notified L’Ecuyer that she had received a commission as an ensign–the same day she received notification that she had passed the Massachusetts Bar Exam. She began attending Reserve meetings, and “Eventually I was told by the personnel officer that ‘The Coast Guard is looking for lawyers, and for some reason they think you qualify. I keep setting them straight.’ Well, I set him straight and soon afterwards orders arrived assigning me to Coast Guard headquarters in New York City.” It was the start of a full, 20-year career in the Coast Guard. When CAPT L’Ecuyer retired in 1971, she was the Chief of Reserve Training of the 12th Coast Guard District in San Francisco.13
Sp(x)2 Audrey (Ohler) Keagy, SPARs
In some cases, a woman veteran’s decision to pursue a college education under the G.I. Bill changed not only her life but the lives of her family members as well. Audrey (Ohler) Keagy’s father worked for the New York Central Railroad and her family moved frequently when she was growing up. When she graduated from high school in Ohio in 1941, she got a job at the Timken Roller Bearing Company in Canton, OH, doing office work. After the war started, Keagy found war work on the factory floor at Republic Steel, also in Canton, carrying parts to airplane assemblers. She decided she could do even more for the war effort by joining the SPARs and the Coast Guard sent her to Toledo, OH, as a switchboard operator. After she was demobilized, Sp(x)2 Keagy returned home. “I hadn’t heard that women were eligible for G.I. Bill benefits,” she said, “but then I read about it in the newspaper.” Although some women veterans were not told about the G.I. Bill at demobilization centers and others assumed that the benefits were just for men, most of these women eventually learned about their entitlements, just as Keagy did.
Keagy attended Kent State University, in Ohio, on the G.I. Bill and studied to become a kindergarten teacher. “My mother was absolutely thrilled that I was attending college,” she said. Keagy was the first person in her family to attend and graduate from college. “Then my older sister decided to try it too. She said, ‘Well if Audrey can do it, than so can I!’” Keagy got her first teaching job as a kindergarten teacher in Canton and eventually transferred to the Williamsburg, OH, school system where she taught for 26 years. She got married and had a child but continued to teach during marriage and motherhood. Even after she retired, she volunteered as a literacy instructor at her local library.14
CPT Jeane (Newell) McIlwee, WAAC/WAC
Jeane (Newell) McIlwee was a farmer’s daughter from Junction City, KS. “I would have loved to attend college,” she said, “but times were hard in 1938 and there was no way my family could send me.” Instead, McIlwee attended business school and, when the war started, she got a job with the federal government in Washington, DC. She was there when the WAAC was established; and she and a friend decided to join together. After basic training, McIlwee attended officer candidate school and specialized in finance. Assigned with the Corps of Engineers, her job was to identify the cost of returned engineering equipment. Her boss recommended her for an overseas assignment to Cairo, Egypt, where she served for 10 months. There she met her future husband. When CPT McIlwee returned home after the war, she enrolled at the University of Kansas and “My warrant officer followed me home and we decided to get married.” The couple moved to Kansas City, MO, and had a son. “When our son was three years old,” said McIlwee, “I told my husband that I really wanted to go to school on the G.I. Bill. He said that would be OK, so I enrolled at the University of Missouri. I used the living allowance they paid me to place our son in a very prestigious nursery school, where it was discovered that he had a talent for music. So we bought him a piano, and he loved it. It changed his life. He majored in music in college.” Meanwhile McIlwee earned a degree in elementary education; and, after teaching for six years, she returned to school for her master’s degree. She was then able to obtain a job as a consultant for her school district.
McIlwee distinctly remembers attending a lecture several years ago at which the speaker said that McIlwee’s was the first generation of women who received retirement pensions on their own merit rather than as a result of their husbands’ jobs. As she thought about it, McIlwee concluded that it was WWII that had pushed women out of the home and into the workforce.15
The government had assumed that after the war women would return to the kitchen; however, many women opted to remain in the workforce. Although the majority of working women without college degrees continued to find traditional positions as secretaries and store clerks, the G.I. Bill provided women veterans with alternatives. In most cases, these women entered nursing and teaching–socially accepted professions for women at that time and the dream of many. Some ventured into fields that, prior to the war, had been closed to them both economically and socially. Just as they had once surprised their families and friends by donning military uniforms, they again defied social expectations and trained to become lawyers, architects and college professors, among others. Undoubtedly, service in WWII changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women; and their selfless contributions to our nation helped pave the way for future military women. Moreover, the servicewomen who used their G.I. Bill education benefits not only bettered their own lives and often those of their families, but they also became role models and mentors for generations to come.
By Dr. Judith Bellafaire, Chief Historian, Women’s Memorial Foundation (November 2006)