Personal Hygiene for Women (1943)

Pam here. Today I’m going to break completely new ground as far as MMT reviews are concerned. As those of you who read a lot of MMT reviews have probably figured out, Nate frequently trolls Youtube in search of suitable review prospects. He’s the one who came across this rarity and asked me if I’d be interested in reviewing it, since as you’ll see, it is, and was intended to be, a movie for women only.

As a matter of fact, even when it was made in 1943, it was intended for a very limited audience. It’s a training film for U.S. Navy personnel, specifically for women who were filling out the ranks of the WAVES. At the very beginning, there’s a statement that it is to be shown to authorized personnel only. However, I’ve watched it a couple of times, and nobody’s come knocking on my door to arrest me, so if you want to watch it, it’s probably safe to do so. Due to the nature of the subject matter, though, it probably won’t be of much interest to men. I’ll say right now it’s not one of those ghastly training films about venereal disease that were shown to servicemen during the war. Some of those are available on the Internet, and they really are as bad as you’ve heard. However, there’s a closeup of an ugly case of impetigo in this film.

That means no Commies!

In fact it doesn’t specifically address the possibility of women contracting a venereal disease or getting pregnant, which seems naïve, but I understand women in the armed forces during World War II were kept pretty closely chaperoned. However, it does mention the possibility that skin rashes may be a symptom of syphilis, and this is where the “X-rated” part comes in, because we’re shown such a rash on a naked woman – full frontal nudity with nothing at all to hide the naughty bits, although her face isn’t shown. The movie devotes more time to avoiding constipation than it does to avoiding venereal disease or pregnancy. It goes into a lot of detail about how woman’s reproductive organs work (some more frontal nudity here), which suggests this wasn’t ordinarily taught in schools of the time. It also goes into detail about feminine hygiene products used during menstruation, and all I can say is, we’ve come a long way since 1943.


It tells how to douche, and now that I think about it, this might have been a covert way of discussing contraception without admitting it was contraception. It doesn’t say a word about using a diaphragm, though. And it says to see a doctor if you have a vaginal discharge, so maybe they did consider that women might be having sex and getting a venereal disease? Not a hint of making your partner use condoms, however. Of course, in 1943 if a woman in the service got pregnant out of wedlock, she would be booted out with a dishonorable discharge. I started wondering what would happen if a married WAVE got pregnant, and through the magic of Google I was able to find out: married women were allowed to join the service in the first place only if they didn’t have minor children, and since it’s unlikely husband and wife would be able see to each other much, if at all, during the war, the matter of getting pregnant in wedlock probably didn’t arise often, assuming the woman in question was young enough for this to be an issue. Besides, as I mentioned above, condoms and diaphragms did exist in 1943, and judging by the drop in birthrate had been widely used during the Depression, so if you were married and patriotic, you could choose to postpone motherhood until after the war. Women already in the service who got married could request an honorable discharge, and I would imagine this would be the same for a servicewoman who got pregnant by her husband.

Not getting pregnant with that hair...

As an aside, I read a World War II memoir written by a British soldier that claimed women who were in the British Army and found it not to their liking often deliberately got pregnant by any man they could find so they could get a discharge, after which they would get an abortion. He claimed it was so common the British Army instituted a policy of not discharging a pregnant unmarried woman until she was at least six months pregnant, since it was assumed nobody would perform an abortion that late in the pregnancy. I’m not sure how much credence to place in his story, since there was a distinct tone of resentment that this option wasn’t available to male British soldiers who decided they didn’t like being in the Army. Also, abortion was illegal under almost all circumstances in England during World War II, just as it was here, so finding someone to perform an abortion wasn’t necessarily easy, nor were abortions necessarily safe.

Ah, so that's where they are.

To get back to the film, besides the material that skates close to discussing sex, we’re also given information about other things. It goes into detail about the need for proper posture and shows two women in their underwear to contrast how the underwear of World War I included a corset, which made the body assume an unnatural posture, as opposed to the “comfortable” underwear of 1943 (which included a girdle!) It tells you how to choose a comfortable girdle and bra, which the narrator calls a “brazeer.” The importance of well-fitting shoes is also stressed, and those shoes the Navy recommends for its WAVES sure are ugly!

Lots of frills and ribbons.

It mentions the need for well-fitting stockings, too, because in 1943, if you were an adult woman wearing a skirt and weren’t on the beach, you were supposed to wear stockings, although when wartime shortages really set in, some brave women went without. Wearing stockings usually meant you needed a girdle to hold them up, although garter belts did exist, and some women probably still followed the 1920s practice of rolling their stockings around elastic garters to hold them up. It shows how to mend the stockings (!), which was probably required by wartime shortages but had been pretty common even before the war. There’s even a closeup of a stocking that seems to have been re-footed (!!), which I have heard of being done to save money. Of course you can’t mend nylons, but these women don’t seem to be wearing nylons. As best as I can tell, they’re wearing flesh-colored opaque stockings, possibly cotton lisle. They aren’t silk stockings, since there’s no sheen to them, but I can’t imagine the Navy would have paid for silk stockings anyway. It even shows how to wash and dry your feet, and how to wash your face! Oh, and you’re supposed to wash your hair “every week or two. “ They mention there are “wetting agents” available that do a better job cleaning your hair than soap does, so I guess shampoo wasn’t that common in 1943. It advises you to rinse your hair with equal parts of kerosene and vinegar if you get head lice. I have no idea if this is effective or even safe.

Protect the hair!

Although this movie won’t help you much if you enlist in the Navy today, it gives a lot of interesting information about how the average woman lived in 1943. The women shown don’t seem to be professional actresses, and they probably are actual WAVES. Incidentally, all the women we see up close are white, although I think I saw one or two Asian women in the ranks. The United States armed forces in World War II were of course still segregated. This gives us a chance to see how American women in 1943 actually dressed and wore their hair, as opposed to how today’s Hollywood chooses to depict them. These women aren’t particularly beautiful or glamorous, and they don’t have the flowing, elaborate, fresh-from-the beauty-parlor hairstyles the actresses are given in current Hollywood movies about World War II. I’m sure these women were doing their own hair and didn’t have that much time to style it. They have fairly short hair, probably permed and set in pincurls every night. Closeups of hands with manicures show that in 1943, half-moons were still left unpainted and nails were kept pretty short.

Don't want to snag those parachutes.

The film feels it necessary to remind women to have their uniforms cleaned regularly and to wash their underwear regularly (!) It also directs them to bathe regularly, including “intimate parts.” Bear in mind that in 1943, running water in the home still wasn’t a given, especially on farms or in poorer sections of cities. Deodorant is recommended, suggesting that it probably wasn’t used regularly by many women.

And razors, if you know what I mean...

Rather surprisingly, this film isn’t particularly condescending, although the repeated mention of the audience having a “woman-sized job” in the Navy grates a little. It gives a brief run-through of jobs a WAVE might be assigned to, and these include shots of a woman in a chemistry lab, a woman operating an X-ray machine, women doing something that involves weather balloons, and a woman being an air traffic controller. The reason women were being given jobs that in civilian life they most likely wouldn’t even have been considered for was, of course, to free up men for fighting. This particular film doesn’t mention it, but the pervasive attitude in media of the time was that all the men were overjoyed to be relieved of their safe duties so they could go off to get shot, bombed, contract a host of tropical diseases, and rot in POW camps. Biographies written by these men after the war show that this often was not in fact the case. See the British soldier’s story above. In addition, there was the fact that proficiency in shooting enemy soldiers is not directly transferable to a job postwar, whereas lab technician, X-ray technician, air traffic controller, etc. are. And now we get to the horrid bugaboo of Women Taking Men’s Jobs.

Paddy McHarvard here needs some competition.

This was genuinely a red-hot concern in the United States before, during, and after World War II, particularly among American men. But of course American women would be sympathetic and would feel a woman was entitled to any job she could do? And wouldn’t they be happy that this might open new opportunities for themselves and their daughters? Not so. A lot of women back then seemed to think women should never, ever take a job that could go to a man. The library of the university I went to had bound copies of some of the more popular women’s magazines dating back to around 1900, and I spent a fair amount of time reading them when I should have been studying. The prevailing opinions of the times in which the magazines were written came through loud and clear. Up until the Depression, there was some gingerly approval of women moving into fields previously closed to them, but once the Depression got really bad, there was a general agreement in the women’s magazines that most jobs should be given to men with families to support. (Too bad if you were a woman and had a family to support, I suppose.)

Never enough sinks in the Navy.

As most of you probably know, this attitude lasted well past the war and wasn’t really challenged until the 1960s. Not only that, there was a general belief in the women’s magazines that if a woman did get what was considered a man’s job, she should be willing to take less money for doing it than a man would get. You think I’m kidding? In 1944, Ladies’ Home Journal asked readers’ opinions about whether a woman should be paid as much as a man for doing the same job, and by a large majority, the consensus was she should not. The readers, who were naturally mostly women, were afraid that men would feel emasculated if women got paid as much as they did. You modern readers may respond, “So what?” but of course most of the women of 1944 and later had few or no marketable skills and were completely dependent on their husbands for support. The thought that every time a woman got a job a man wanted, they and their children became just a little less secure, must have been lurking in the backs of many women’s minds.

Speaking of backs.

As a matter of fact, the possibility of women taking men’s jobs turned out to be mostly a non-issue post-war, because many employers simply refused to hire a woman for a job traditionally held by men, something that was quite legal to do at the time. A woman who graduated with a degree in physics in the mid-1950s told me she had a hard time even getting interviews. She said that one time when she did get an interview, the company apparently only wanted to interview her to tell her they wouldn’t hire her because it would be bad for morale. The (male) interviewer’s reasoning was that when the men’s wives found out their husbands were working side-by-side with a woman, the wives would get jealous and make their husbands’ lives miserable, so the men’s job performances would suffer. She finally did get a job in her field, but she got married a year or so later and wanted to have children, and since there was no sympathy or support for working mothers at that time, plus she was getting a certain amount of harassment from her coworkers, she decided to quit and start a family.

Advice is always needed.

It just occurred to me, this film doesn’t bring up is whether the women in the service who were assigned to jobs formerly held by men were paid the same as the men, or rather were given the same rank as men who had had these assignments before the war. And were the women as eligible for promotion as the men had been? Does anybody know? If you’re thinking that this film suggests the Navy was specifically picking on women’s personal cleanliness, here I can say you’re wrong. There are also films on Youtube addressing male hygiene in the Navy during World War II. I must point out that Personal Hygiene for Women is a 45-minute-long movie using real people although not professional actors, whereas the films on personal hygiene for men are cartoons, each only a few minutes long. Take this however you will.

Sensible shoes are a must.

As it happens, there are other training films available on Youtube that address personal hygiene for women in the armed forces, but most of these date from the 1950s and 1960s. I considered reviewing one of those to compare it to this film, but none of them are very interesting. They don’t feel the need to go into as much detail as this film did, and they tend to stress the fun aspects of being in the service. There’s so much emphasis on proper makeup, hairstyles, and staying slim that at times they seem more like training films for charm schools than for the armed forces. Constipation, however, had apparently become a non-issue. Also, for the information of the male readers, there are no naked women. But there are African-American women in those later films, and there’s no hint they’re treated any differently than the white women, so progress has been made.

BTW, found some great pics of WAVES online...

Keep 'em flying.

Keep 'em shooting.

Keep 'em healthy.

Things have surely changed for women in the Navy.

The End.

Written in December 2015 by Pam Burda.

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