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The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines

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The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines by Kara Dixon Vuic. Harvard University Press, 2019, 382 pp. 

The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines explores gender and sexuality issues in the military through the lens of the roles women played in the armed forces recreation and services programs; for example, the Red Cross, YMCA, and USO. The book traces the history of women in these roles from World War I to the Iraq War. The reader gains insight into the women’s thoughts and reflections through personal letters, memoirs, and other types of correspondence written before, during, and after the war. Readers also get glimpses into how the women were viewed by the leaders of the various service organizations, the DOD, and the male soldiers with passages from official memorandum, DOD policy, and personal correspondence. The book is very well-researched and does an excellent job of conveying the richness and complexity, not only of the women’s experience but also of the wartime environment in which they served.  

On the surface, this book will be interesting to students of military history who want a detailed look at the development of the recreational services programs. At another level, this book will be fascinating to those who have a keen interest in how sexual and gender norms, as understood particularly in the military, changed through the course of the twentieth century. And perhaps, at an even deeper level, this book can be a resource for readers concerned with both describing and evaluating the ethical dimensions of how women have been used in the recreational services during wartime. 

The book essentially revolves around the various ways the military tries to deal with a perennial problem in wartime, that is, how to manage the sexual appetite of its male soldiers in a deployed environment. (The military does not seem to have an equal concern for how women, such as Women Airforce Service Pilots or WASPs, nurses, female Soldiers in Iraq, or the women who served in the recreational services program themselves, were supposed to deal with managing their sexual appetites.) As shown throughout the book, successfully managing the male sexual appetite was an extremely important operational issue and occupied the attention of unit commanders, medical personnel, and top DOD and federal government officials. For example, venereal disease could wipe out significant percentages of the fighting force in particular areas. Some believed that the male sexual appetite could be sated through the sanctioning of prostitution, but only if the prostitutes had been “medically cleared.” Other officials advocated for a more stoic view of the problem and advocated for abstinence, insisting that if soldiers could sublimate their sexual energy, they could use it to become more spirited and effective war fighters. Government officials had no clear solution to the problem but believed the use of women in the recreational services was one effective way to address the problem. 

Ostensibly, the role of the women in the recreational services program was to staff “clubs” for Soldiers on leave or when they had time for rest and relaxation. During World War I and World War II, they also traveled in trucks and vans, serving coffee and donuts to men at the frontlines. The clubs were designed to be attractive alternatives to brothels and to entice men to socialize with American women in a “wholesome environment.” For example, Vuic points out that during World War I, recreational services women were sent out into the streets of France, in pairs, at night, and in their uniforms, to intercept men on their way to finding prostitutes. Their job was to try to convince them to join them back at the club.  

While staffing the clubs, women not only cooked, cleaned, and served food to the men, they also provided entertainment as well. Most women received specialized “training” in how to make conversation, how to play cards, games, and so forth. Their basic mission was to bring “the homefront” to the frontlines. Women were supposed to look and act in such a way that the soldiers would be reminded of their mothers and sisters and the country back home for which they were fighting. It was almost with universal agreement that Soldiers’ encounter with women was “good for morale” and made them a more effective fighting force.  

While the encounters were thought good for the men and their morale, the effect on the women, Vuic points out, was decidedly mixed. Women were placed in a very complicated set of gender roles and expectations. They had to be attractive enough to lure men away from engaging with prostitutes, yet they had to present themselves as off limits for any such sexual activity. They had to engage in extended periods of conversation and go on trips as companions for officers, yet also had to develop a strong set of boundaries such that no intimate relationships would emerge. Efforts in establishing boundaries did not always work, unfortunately. Women reported that they had to get used to turning down frequent marriage proposals, protect themselves from being sexually propositioned and, in some cases, recover from sexual assault and violence. 

The Girls Next Door is an excellent window into gender and sexuality issues in wartime and explores the various ways the military has sought to deal with the male sexual appetite. The latter chapters of the book, which deal with the shifting role of the recreational services program as women became more integrated into armed forces as war fighters themselves, show how the gender and sexuality landscape is complicated even further. These latter chapters highlight that the military still struggles to find ways to deal with these issues in a mature fashion, especially in today’s hypersexualized environment.   

Every service member would do well to read this book and consider the assumptions about sex, sexuality, and gender stereotypes of both men and women that it reveals and still exist today.  

Deonna D. Neal, PhD 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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