Let Us Have Action for Women Instead of Lip-Service

As World War II raged on in 1943, writer Fannie Hurst delivered a speech to the National Women’s Conference sponsored by the New York Times. In her speech, Hurst observed how role changes caused by the war increased women’s economic power and independence. In particular, more women worked outside the home while men were off fighting the war, which gave women more opportunities to participate in the public sphere.

Summary Overview

As World War II raged on in 1943, writer Fannie Hurst delivered a speech to the National Women’s Conference sponsored by the New York Times. In her speech, Hurst observed how role changes caused by the war increased women’s economic power and independence. In particular, more women worked outside the home while men were off fighting the war, which gave women more opportunities to participate in the public sphere.

Hurst asked women to consider which roles they wanted to occupy in society once the war was over. She implored women not to give up the ground they have gained and to exert themselves in public roles such as government and finance. She believed that women could play a key role in preventing future wars, but she criticized their lack of action to date as “lip-service.” Finally, she emphasized the importance of empowering women to shape the world in which they would live and raise their children.

Defining Moment

Between 1917 and 1919, many American men joined the military to fight in World War I. In their absence, women filled their jobs in factories, farms, and other industries. This shifting of roles helped maintain the US economy during the war and ensure the manufacture and transport of materials needed for the war. Working outside the home empowered women to participate in public life; but as men returned from war, women were expected to leave their new positions and return to the private, domestic sphere of their homes.

Only twenty years later, the United States became involved in World War II. As men left their jobs to fight in another war, women once again assumed jobs in the industries needed to keep the nation operating on the home and war fronts. Even more so than during World War I, women experienced the independence and power that accompanied their participation in economic and community endeavors.

Women had also made significant gains in the public sphere since World War I. The ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 granted American women the right to vote, and women increasingly participated in all levels of government. For example, by the early 1940s, ten women were serving in the Seventy-Seventh United States Congress (1941–43).

Additionally, women increasingly participated directly in the war effort: Nearly 70,000 women served in the Army Nurse Corps or Navy Nurse Corps, and permitted military service for women expanded within the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines. During World War II, about 350,000 women served in divisions such as the Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and the Army WAAC (Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps). Women were often limited to certain roles and denied full military benefits, but nonetheless they contributed significantly to the Allied victory.

Author Biography

Fannie Hurst was born in Hamilton, Ohio, on October 18, 1889. She received her AB degree from Washington University in St. Louis in 1909 and attended graduate school at Columbia University. Her writing career started off slowly, but she eventually captured the attention of the popular Saturday Evening Post, gaining a significant following. By 1925, she was among the highest paid writers in the United States.

Throughout her life, Hurst supported a variety of social justice causes, particularly for women and gays and lesbians. During the 1940s she actively raised funds to support refugees from Nazi Germany; in the 1950s she supported the newly formed state of Israel.

During her fifty-year career, Hurst wrote seventeen novels, nine volumes of short stories, three plays, and numerous articles, in addition to participating in speaking engagements, films, and a television talk show. She died in New York City on February 23, 1968; upon her passing, she bequeathed one million dollars to Brandeis University and Washington Universities to establish professorships in creative writing.

Historical Document

THIS forum in its entirety has been an occasion of realistic discussion of contemporaneous key-problems, as they relate to the shape-of-things to come. Practical nuts, hard to crack, have come under hard-hitting, incisive hammers.

A conspiracy of unparalleled circumstances makes it possible for a symposium of women to gather here for discussions such as we have heard; a conspiracy of circumstances that ranges from the can-opener, washing machine, telephone and automobile, and their role in a householder’s life, to the colossus of this war and its role in the destiny of modern women.

It is indeed a far cry from the days of our grandmothers, (when the hewing of wood and the drawing of water monopolized so large a part of woman-time), to the released, uncircumscribed program of life that mechanized living, radio, modern press and transportation have made possible for modern women.

It is indeed a far cry from the waiting Penelopes who used to weep and wait in their ivory towers for the return of their soldiers, to the WAVES and WAACS of today. In that long portentous era between the middle ages and this horrific present, erosive processes which sometimes seemed geologically slow, have been steadily at work in woman’s sphere.

And then, one day it became December 7th, 1941. This strategic date becomes our springboard into all the subjects under discussion here today. In these 486 days, subsequent to Pearl Harbor, more drastic changes have occurred in women’s status than in the decade before.

Overnight, over Pearl-Harbor-Night, as it were, a transition in design-of-living for American women, has been sharply made. The challenge that we have to face now becomes, not how to win the fort, but having won it, how to hold it. Challenge is a big, evocative word. Challenge is something to be met and conquered.

Where do we go from here? Do we, as in the last World War, step aside when our men come home and resume economically, industrially, almost where we left off? No, because nothing is permanent but change.

Naturally, since once more, there has been heavy and inevitable displacement of men in industry, as millions of them enter the armed services, women may be counted upon if, or when, it is necessary, to once more step out of their new jobs when their men come marching home.

But there are larger considerations that have not to do with mere temporary displacement.

Those larger considerations of impending change, women must now contemplate as seriously as our nation as a whole is beginning to contemplate its post-war behavior. They must take stock of their past, evaluate their present and prognosticate their future.

Our past speaks for itself. We have outgrown it. Our present also speaks for itself. But it does not seem to me that we always properly interpret it.

Uncontroversially, women, even now, are making enormous strides economically, socially, industrially. We are putting up a good showing in this war which is no more than should be expected of us. But this much vaunted power of American women is exaggerated.

To be sure, the first World War did mark a distinct promotion in our social, economic and industrial status. Also, due in no small measure to a capitalistic system which has enabled women to inherit vast fortunes from husbands, much wealth, for various deeply-rooted reasons, is now concentrated in women’s hands. Also, as householders and mothers, woman buying power is colossal. Women hold strategic purse strings.

Since the first World War, the American woman has tasted the sweet freedom of economic independence; she has gone to college in droves; she votes. But the commotion is still out of all proportion to the promotion.

Factually, the power of women today in this country in government, in industry, in finance, in those departments of activity which form the pillars of society, is disproportionately and disappointingly small.

The Madame Pompadour power behind the throne era is no longer our idea of woman status. The old comic-strip idea of the wife who achieves her desired weekly budget by means of rifling her husband’s trousers pockets by night, belongs to the Currier and Ives period.

When we women of this urgent now think of power, we mean the power that goes with active and constructive participation in creating the world in which we and our families live. Let’s face the fact. We are as yet only feebly represented in the functional departments of American government and industry. Our much vaunted strength is largely wordage.

We are not adequately represented in the key departments of city, state, or nation. It is to our glory that we have a woman, and an excellent one, in the cabinet. We have capable women in our legislatures and in Congress. But the women who go to serve in our law-making bodies, are not vested with the high authorities that go with having great woman-power to fall back on at home. Women are not sufficiently organized. They are not sufficiently part of the organic structure of their local communities.

A woman still has to be twice as good as a man in order to get half as far.

They are still on the edge of the professions. It has been controversial up to almost this very moment whether women doctors are eligible for Army or Navy service.

We also know a little bitterly that because of lack of what we shall call woman-push, we, who by temperament and by nature have always been the foes of war, have not been able to distill the power to prevent them. We have failed in the past. We are failing in the present. Let us pray it is our heritage to succeed in the future.

And wishful thinking is not going to achieve the formula for maintaining peace in a world that up to now has been periodically fertilized by the bodies of war dead. Urgent now, is the time for action. Urgent now, is the moment for women to jump into this enormous business of lending their push, their figurative literal push—their brain, brawn, yes and real muscle, to a specific program that will prevent future wars.

Had there, as far back as Manchuria, Ethiopia, Munich, Poland, existed a united-nations organization so geared that it would have stepped in and prevented Germany from running riot over what is now the maimed and bleeding face of the world, horror could have been averted. Wisdom after the event, yes, but wisdom ahead of future events.

Through all their war-harassed centuries, women have functioned in behalf of peace by way of lip-service rather than action. Let’s face that; evaluate it for what it is worth, which is not very much, and dedicate ourselves to a war-proof future. That is high mission! As high as human happiness and human decency and all the elements that go to make life worth living.

The greatest unreleased power in the world today is woman-power. The Muscle Shoals and the Boulder Dams that will utilize that power reside in the determination of the women themselves.

If you stop to think about it, there has been no great organized woman-push throughout history.

It will be interesting a couple of centuries from now, after women have long since been inducted into those departments of society which now discriminate against them, to see to what extent our feeble representation in the enduring arts, was responsible for the circumscribed lives that women had been living for centuries.

How few immortal women authors for instance, there are compared to men. What woman Shakespeare or Tolstoy, or Moliere? How few women poets between Sappho and Millay. How many women Beethovens and Mozarts have come down to us through the ages? How many women Rembrandts? These fields have always been open to women. What circumscribed conditions have inhibited us? You believe and I believe the answer is that we have remained the creatively languid sex for environmental reasons.

And now we have come to a crossroads and are face to face with the most realistic moment in our long history.

What do we want and how are we going to set about getting it? Those are concrete factual considerations.

Let’s not fool ourselves. We need more functional power in government, education and industry. We need more woman-push, organization, and capacity to work together. Also, we need to break down women’s inhibition against women.

And even more than that. There is an overtone; a more important dimension than any of the concrete ones mentioned, that women need and want in our post-war world.

Not only are we fighting to the death for the democratic way of life, we are fighting for the maintenance of those not easily defined spiritual values which dignify and glorify the nation, the home, the family, the individual.

Not for one moment has this forum been concerned solely with a mere discussion of more jobs for women; equalization of their citizenship rights; extension of their home interests; wider economic independence and a more active participation in the machinery of government.

These assets, important as they are, become scarcely worth the candle unless they achieve for us by way of wider horizons of intellect and experience, a release of the spirit, a more intelligent capacity for wifehood, motherhood, citizenship. The home is the nucleus of the spiritual life of society. The nucleus of the home is the woman. Enlarge her vision, her range of interests and activities, extend her power in government and state; cultivate her mind, enhance her value to the community as well as to the family; to the nation as well as to civilization, and you have a better human being in a better world.

This is a transition period. This is crisis in the history of the world and in the history of women. Now is the time to plan ahead.


colossus: anything gigantic or very powerful; word comes from the legendary enormous bronze statue of Helios at Rhodes

Currier and Ives: a successful American printmaking company in New York City from 1834 to 1907

languid: lacking in vigor or vitality; lacking in spirit or interest; listless

Madame [de] Pompadour: Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, a member of the French Court in the 1700s and chief mistress to King Louis XV; a powerful advisor and aid to the King

Muscle Shoals: the former rapid waters of the Tennessee River in Alabama which were turned into a lake by the Wilson Dam

portentous: ominously significant or indicative; momentous

uncircumscribed: not enclosed within bounds; unlimited or unconfined

vaunted: praised boastfully or excessively

WAACS: the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps; founded in America during World War II

WAVES: the Women’s Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve, the distinct force of women enlistees in the US Navy, organized during World War II

Document Analysis

In 1943, at the height of the war, writer Fannie Hurst gave a speech at the National Women’s Conference sponsored by the New York Times. She observed how women’s position in society had changed over the course of the two world wars; specifically, they had shifted from the private sphere of the home, to the public sphere of industry. Now that women had experienced the economic freedom and power that accompanied working outside the home and actively participating in economic activities, they were less inclined to return to their private, domestic roles as they had done after World War I. She implored women to consider their public roles moving forward, and encouraged greater participation in areas such as government and finance to help women obtain true power to shape society.

Fannie Hurst begins her speech by describing the modern conveniences that have changed women’s lives significantly in the previous decades, including time-saving appliances such as washing machines, transportation advances such as automobiles, and communication devices such as the telephone. These developments made women’s domestic chores easier, thus allowing them more freedom to participate in public activities.

Hurst also notes some of the significant changes in women’s status during and after World War I. She observes that women are able to—and often do—inherit large fortunes when their husbands pass away. Women are generally in charge of the household and children, and they have significant buying power. Thus, she says, women occupy a significant role in the economic, social, and industrial fabric of American life.

However, Hurst notes that, while American women have made significant strides in their participation in public life, there is still a long way to go. Women are increasingly economically independent, attend college, and vote; however, they remain conspicuously absent from many activities that form “pillars of society,” such as government, industry, and finance. She defines power as “the power that goes with active and constructive participation in creating the world in which we and our families live,” and says that women are only “feebly represented” in these departments.

Hurst connects this to the present war by noting that women can play a significant role in achieving and maintaining peace. She says that women’s temperament makes them “foes of war,” but that “lip-service rather than action” has meant that women historically have not taken an active role in preventing war. She wants to see women organize, to form a “woman-push,” and to use both their brains and brawn to create specific programs that will prevent future wars.

In observing women’s relative lack of power and effort, she draws parallels to artistic fields such as writing, music, poetry, and painting, and notes that women are feebly represented there as well. She asks what “circumscribed conditions” inhibited women from more fully participating in these fields, which have always been open to women. She believes women have “remained the creatively languid sex for environmental reasons.”

At the end of her speech, Hurst says that the solution is not merely to allow more jobs for women, to achieve wider economic independence, or to participate more actively in government. Instead, enlarging women’s vision, interests, and power in a much broader sense will enhance a woman’s value to her community as well as her family, which in turn leads to “a better human being in a better world.”

Essential Themes

During previous wars, Hurst says, many women would “weep and wait in their ivory towers for the return of their soldiers.” This changed during World War I, as women stepped in to fill various public roles and jobs while men were away fighting. Initially, this was treated as a temporary solution to the displacement of male workers. But the same phenomenon occurred during World War II—only twenty years later—leading Hurst and others to question the expectation that women would once again step out of their “temporary” roles as men return from war. Hurst posed a significant question to American women: “Where do we go from here?”

Hurst’s speech emphasized that she wanted women to think about what their role would be moving forward, once the war concluded. She specifically believed that women’s temperament was the key to ensuring that peace prevailed once the war was over, and she stressed that women needed to band together and make significant pushes to have their voices heard and to institute change.

In her speech Hurst noted the great strides women had made in the decades prior to World War I. Women were increasingly well-educated and economically independent, worked outside the home, and had considerable purchasing power. But she also noted that much of women’s so-called “power” was merely words: women lacked true power in one of the most important aspects of society. In particular, women were still severely underrepresented in government and industry. Hurst emphasized that this power is important because it is what shapes society. Hurst concluded that the world was in a “transition period,” and her speech was designed to motivate women to take a more active role in public affairs.

Bibliography and Additional Reading

  • Bellafaire, Judith A.The Army Nurse Corps. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military Hist., 2003. Print.
  • ___________.The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service. Washington, DC: US Army Center of Military Hist., 2005. Print.
  • Brody, Seymour.Jewish Heroes and Heroines of America: 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism. Hollywood: Lifetime, 1996. Print.
  • “Partners in Winning the War: American Women in World War II.” Natl. Women’s Hist Museum. Natl. Women’s Hist. Museum, 2007. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
  • Strom, Sharon H. Hartman, and Linda P. Wood. “Women and World War II.” What Did You Do in the War, Grandma? Brown University’s Scholarly Technology Group, 1997. Web. 12 Nov. 2014.
  • “Women in Congress.” History, Art and Archives. US House of Representatives, 2006. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
  • “Women in WWII at a Glance.” Natl. WWII Museum. Natl. WWII Museum, 2014. Web. 12 Nov 2014.