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Knowing and Doing Women’s History


The month of March—designated as Women’s History Month—is an ideal time to read a book, watch a film, or visit a museum exhibit highlighting the experiences of women in past generations and to consider lessons they might offer in the present day. Another way to honor women’s past lives is to cast one’s gaze back at family or church history.


Recently, I received an email query from a history student at a university in Michigan.  He was seeking information about the activities of his great-grandmother, Virginia, during the Second World War. Virginia’s husband Robert had been a conscientious objector who, in 1942, had entered the nationwide Civilian Public Service program, administered by Mennonite, Quaker, and Brethren leaders to provide a legal alternative to compulsory military service. Robert spent the next four years in unpaid forestry service, humanitarian relief training, and public health assignments across the Midwest and Deep South. Virginia took jobs to support him financially, and she moved to be near his various work placements.


Throughout these years, she persevered despite repeated harassment from local townspeople living near the Civilian Public Service camps who regarded conscientious objection to war as an untenable stance and viewed the conscientious objectors themselves as unpatriotic cowards.


My young email correspondent told me that while Robert had documented his wartime activities on the home front by writing a memoir and collecting photographs, Virginia “didn’t write nearly as much,” so “any indication of her experience is quite valuable.”

           

I was intrigued by this young man’s quest to explore the complex relationships that his great-grandparents had navigated as avowed peacemakers on the margins of American society and especially the tenacity of his great-grandmother in relating to her family, faith community, and neighbors.


Researching past lives is not always easy. But in this case, decades-long tending of documentation in archival repositories (at Mennonite institutions and at the Swarthmore College Peace Collection in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania) yielded a first-person account written in the 1990s by Virginia as she recalled her World War II-era experiences, reflecting how she and other women affiliated with Civilian Public Service sustained their commitments to nonviolence in the face of public hostility.

 

Knowing women’s history, it turns out, is both possible and rewarding.


Now, nearly eighty years after the closing of the Civilian Public Service program, very few physical monuments exist to commemorate the service of American conscientious objectors who participated in this unique 1940s church-state partnership. Of those that do remain, a marker that stands near a Friends meetinghouse in Philadelphia is typical in that it fails to acknowledge the approximately two thousand women (including Virginia) who engaged in this service program as spouses, administrators, nurses, dieticians, and mental health workers.


Fortunately, a different kind of memorial to both the women and men of Civilian Public Service is readily available: a resource-rich website with historical overviews, searchable databases, photographs, and suggestions for further reading. The website, published in 2015 by Mennonite Central Committee through the efforts of Civilian Public Service alumni, as well as archivists and scholars, is accessible at https://civilianpublicservice.org/

       

Mennonite women with significant ties to Civilian Public Service—notably the educator Rosalind Andreas (1941-2021)—led the way in envisioning and making this historical resource available. That’s a lesson in itself: knowing and doing women’s history are worthwhile pursuits. 


Happy Women’s History Month!


Rachel Waltner Goossen

Professor Emerita of History, Washburn University


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Mennonite Women USA values what all women have to say and Women's Voices blog is a space to honor their words. Posts are reviewed for tolerance and respect but don't necessarily reflect MW USA's official position

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Anne Yoder
Anne Yoder
17 mars

Thank you, Rachel, for reminding us about the many women who served in CPS. So much of what we know about these women is through your terrific research and book. And thanks for mentioning the Peace Collection, where I worked for 29 years, and Rosalind’s efforts on the CPS website. I got to help with putting that together and have used it many times since.

Gilla
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