Cast-iron call boxes, part of D.C.’s emergency response system from the 19th century through the 1970s, have new life as art and historical markers throughout the city. This one located in the 4200 block of Massachusetts Ave, NW honors World War II Navy WAVES. About 5,000 of these “Government Girls” served at the U.S. Naval Communications Annex and lived at Quarters “D” at nearby Ward Circle.
The shy soldier slipped the handwritten note in front of the attractive blonde receptionist. Before she could respond, he disappeared into the throngs of workers flooding into the newly opened Pentagon. Eethel Johnson unfolded it and read, “Because: 1. Of your unfailing courtesy 2. Your ready smile 3. Your general build-up, the general has ordered me to take you out to dinner.” This was not the first nor the last time she received offers for wartime romance. Unfortunately for the lovesick serviceman, Eethel was already happily married to Everett, the boyfriend who had encouraged her move from Des Moines, Iowa to Washington, D.C. to work for the war effort during World War II.
The letter was just one piece of memorabilia Eethel shared as we discussed her work at the Pentagon. Because of her Glamour Girl looks, Eethel was singled out by photographers for publicity shots, articles, and advertising. The black and white stills clearly show a vibrant, stylish, and focused young woman. She took her job at the War Department seriously, made friends with co-workers, military officials, and celebrities (Melvyn Douglas and Horace Heidt among them) easily, and eventually parlayed her wartime office skills into postwar business success, including opening a thrift store in her retirement community when she was 93 years old.
A manila folder filled with clippings, postcards, and invitations cannot hold the complexity of wartime excitement, sorrows, anxieties, and adventures. But Eethel’s collection and stories do offer a brief glimpse into the fun of working a high profile position at the Pentagon as well as how local media approached Government Girls as a novelty.
Eethel stayed and raised her family in the Washington area after the war. She passed away in early 2018.
Government Girls got the full brunt of Washington’s notoriously hot, humid summers in 1943 with temperatures reaching as high as 100 degrees. Air conditioning was rare in federal offices and virtually nonexistent in private homes. Photographer Esther Bubley captured some young members of the Lipstick Brigade nevertheless finding fun in those brutal but sunny days.
Georgetown is one of my favorite DC neighborhoods for encountering unexpected colors, textures, and quirkiness. I can’t help snapping a few pictures as I walk. Thought I’d share some that go beyond iconic M Street. It’s worth getting a bit lost to see what you find, even though the C&O canal is currently undergoing a multiyear renovation and the Georgetown boat has been retired. And, yes, I have an odd fascination with its windows and doors.
I have to share some photos from my book talk and signing at Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center in Virginia. Not only did the fabulous staff led by Curator and Visitor Services Manager Susan Inskeep Gray put together a great program but the lively crowd brought many of their own stories about and connections to Washington’s World War II Government Girls.
If you find yourself in Fairfax, swing by the Museum and Visitor Center (10209 Main St., http://historicfairfax.org). They have terrific exhibits, knowledgable staff, fun walking tours, and lots of information on the Civil War in VA.
John DeFerrari, author of the wonderful Streets of Washington blog, has published a terrific history of Washington, D.C.’s Meridian Hill Hotel. It was built specifically for World War II Government Girls, and John was kind enough to reference Lipstick Brigade in his post.
Check out John’s blog here: Streets of Washington
During World War II, Washington’s Housing Registry processed up to 10,000 requests every month, often more than 300 women a day. The Meridian Hill Hotel was one attempt by the federal government to stem the never-ending growing demand for wartime housing. The government called the Meridian an “Exclusive Hotel for Women,” but locals sarcastically dubbed it “Purity Palace,” for the almost 800 young, single civilian and military Government Girls living there.
John’s blog traces the history of the building and its many uses and what the future may hold for it in our rapidly developing nation’s capital.
Alyce Dixon was feisty, independent, and brave. At 16 she changed the spelling of her first name to sound more theatrical, left home, and found a job. She divorced her only husband when he tried to stop her from financially helping her family (which included 9 brothers and sisters). She was one of the first African-American women to join the Army Women’s Army Corp (WAC ) during World War II; and belonged to the only African-American unit to serve overseas. She challenged unfair racial practices in the Pentagon secretarial pool after the war. She was invited to a private meeting with President Obama at the White House. And despite challenging health issues, maintained her goodwill, humor, and full hair and make-up until her death last week at 108 years old. Alyce was the nation’s oldest female World War II veteran.
You can learn more about her life in this Washington Post obituary:
Or listen to Alyce talk about her World War experiences in the WAC:
But even more fun is to get a sense of Alyce’s spunky personality from this clip of her telling jokes– at 105 years old!
Georgia Bentley left her family’s farm in Southern Maryland to become a Government Girl in World War II Washington. She was just 16 years old. Georgia’s work at the Navy Yard financially helped her mother and younger bothers and sisters after her father’s untimely death.
Georgia is charming, vibrant, and a vivid storyteller. She has fun and fond memories of living in D.C. during the war years. She’s kindly allowed me to share some of them along with a few of her terrific photos.
Here is a short clip in which Georgia remembers rationed nylons and liquid stockings. Look for more clips soon.
And check out this great article from Smithsonian magazine about the leg make-up Georgia mentions:
Government Gertie, a witty, sarcastic comic book created by artist Dorothy Bond, takes aim at the exhausting, chaotic, and often absurd lives of Washington’s Government Girls. Bond later gained fame for the syndicated strip “Chlorine,” a similarly humorous take on the life of a young secretary. Other books and strips in this same niche led to Bond being billed as “America’s No. 1 Woman Cartoonist.”
She was also a quirky one. Bond liked to work in a slip and high heels with a bottle of booze nearby. Comiclopedia quotes her assistant as recalling,”She made a deal with God, that she would never take a drink in the office, and when the ideas were totally vacant, she would storm into my office and grab the bottle and run out into the hall in her slip and high heels, with, I assume, a clear conscience.”
I was lucky enough to receive an original copy of Government Gertie from the family of a Government Girl who worked for a military attaché and traveled the world. This was one of the only mementos she saved from that chapter of her life. Here are a few panels from the book: