The famous image of “Rosie the Riveter” has become an iconic symbol of the roles women played in defeating the Axis powers during World War II.
But not every woman operated machinery on factory floors during the war years. Many joined women’s branches of the armed services. Many continued their studies in college while helping with blood drives, fundraising, and other important activities in support of the war effort.
Kean University is beginning to explore the role women played on campus during the war years, when the University was known as Newark State Teachers College. Thanks to a recently discovered collection of letters preserved by the college’s legendary librarian, Nancy Thompson, Kean students are researching the lives of college women in a time of war.
The Kean University Women’s Studies Program recently hosted a panel discussion on this subject in the first of several events marking Women’s History Month. The panel, “I was a Little Proud of My Uniform: Women, World War II, and Newark State Teachers College,” featured History honors students Laura Hurley and Christina Leedy, as well as Dr. Elizabeth Hyde, Vice Chair of the History Department, and Kean University Archivist Erin Alghandoor. More than 75 students attended.
The panel discussion was based on the students’ original research of two thousand pages of letters, photos, and news clippings unearthed in the Nancy Thompson World War II Collection. That research has led the students on a journey of discovery about what it was like to be a woman at the college during this pivotal time in world history.
The discussion ranged from the history of the collection to the story of Nancy Thompson’s career at Newark State to the changes in curriculum and activities as the role of women on campus grew. New activities included knitting for the war, fundraising for the Red Cross, and organizing book drives for troops across the globe.
Some Newark State women joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later changed to the Women’s Army Corps) and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service – better known as the WAVES, a branch of the Naval Reserve. Throughout the country, about 350,000 women signed up for the armed services or for service with the Red Cross.
Nancy Thompson kept up an amazing correspondence with Newark State students during the war. She also collected letters written to other Newark State faculty and staff. After the war was over, she wrote of her wish to find out more about what happened to Newark State students once they left campus for the armed services. “I wish we could know what has happened to them all since,” she wrote. “It would be more interesting than any book I have read on this subject.”
Kean University students have now taken up her challenge. They have recently been granted access to the Kean University Registrar’s office and are currently analyzing thousands of records with the intent to meet surviving wartime alumni who can provide an oral history of the college at that time. To date, the students have met with three former Newark State Teachers College students and have more scheduled in the coming months.