The women who participated in the conscientious objector movement during World War II received little notice then, but a Kansas University doctoral student hopes to shed some light on their achievements.
Rachel Goossen, a doctoral student and assistant instructor in KU's history department, is doing her dissertation on women who objected to World War II. Although women were exempt from the compulsory military draft and therefore technically could not be considered conscientious objectors, they did participate in the objector movement, Goossen said.
During World War II, men who objected to the war entered civilian public service (CPS), a program set up by the government, and performed "work of national importance," such as forestry and water reclamation, Goossen said in a recent interview. Because women were not drafted, a public service program was not set up for them. But many women participated in the CPS, Goossen said.
Her research concentrates on three groups of women: Women who were the wives, girlfriends or fiancees of men who were conscientious objectors; women who were professional nurses and dietitians and served as volunteers at CPS camps across the nation; and college-aged women attending church colleges who asked for the opportunity to work alongside men in the CPS. Those women called themselves "CO Girls," or "COGS."
BECAUSE SHE is Mennonite, Goossen was familiar with the conscientious objector movement. Mennonites, Quakers and the Brethern oppose all wars. Goossen's great uncle was a conscientious objector during World War II.
Goossen said the experiences of women who opposed the war largely have been overlooked.
Men who participated in the CPS were provided room and board and a small allowance, which Goossen estimated at $10 a month, but the government did not extend benefits to their families. So many wives and children were left in the lurch.
Goossen said some women traveled to CPS camps to be near their husbands and found jobs to support themselves and their children.
"Often times these were women who were real young," Goossen said. "What I'm interested in is whether they experienced any hostility" and what kind of reception they received.
CONSCIENTIOUS objectors people who oppose war on moral, philosophical or religious grounds definitely were the minority during World War II, America's "good war," Goossen said.
"That was a pretty unpopular stance to take," she said.
Goossen, who started working on the study last year, has been in touch with about 150 women who participated in CPS and the conscientious objector movement. Once she is finished, she expects she will have conducted formal, face-to-face interviews with about 25 of the women, many of whom lived in poverty during the war as a result of their family's stance.
"These women lived a really different slice of life," Goossen said. "It's been a real interesting project. They are so grateful that someone is interested in telling their story."
One woman Goossen interviewed kept a diary about her experiences during World War II. The Virginia woman's husband opposed the war and went into the CPS, also keeping a diary. The woman has merged the diaries and sent them to Goossen.
GOOSSEN SAID the woman was separated from her husband and raised their son alone for a few years. But the woman fully supported her husband's objection to the war.
Another woman, from Ohio, served as a dietitian in the CPS for five years and sent a one-page, typed letter to her parents every week. The woman has agreed to share the letters with Goossen.
Goossen said most of the women she has made contact with are retired and are just now beginning to reflect on their lives during the war. Many of the women whose husbands were involved in CPS formed support groups and helped each other care for their children.
"They shared a pretty intense emotional bond," she said, adding some of the women she's talk to "still have a round robin letter going."
Because the women's roles in the war have not been documented, there was little background information Goossen could use.
SHE WAS ABLE to get in touch with the women after doing research in several archives, including Mennonite collections in Goshen, Ind., and at Bethel College in North Newton; the Center for Brethern Studies in Elgin, Ill.; and the Swarthmore Peace Collection at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.
She expects to be finished with her dissertation next year.
"Pretty soon I'm going to have to stop collecting (materials) and start writing," she said, smiling.