US Women Conscientious Objectors in World War II


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When Woodrow Wilson introduced the Selective Service Act [1] in 1917 in the United States, it included all men 21 to 30 years of age. Popularly this has been known as conscription or the draft. There was massive resistance by labour, pacifist and progressive groups. Thousands were jailed and some tortured. The patriotic fever and the repression of groups opposing the war caused a major split in American society.

When Franklin Roosevelt reintroduced the Selective Service Act of 1940, this act included men between the ages of 18 and 45 years. The law included the Right of Conscientious Objection for religious groups. Conscientious Objectors had to participate as non-combatants to serve the war effort. Some were taken to Civilian Public Service (CPS) camps [2] throughout the country to do various projects like work in mental hospitals, fight forest fires, and other services the government felt important. Many pacifists and other religious and non-religious objectors began to see these camps as concentration camps. Others felt they wanted no part of the war effort in their goal of ending all war. A movement among people in conscientious objector camps started when people left the camps and risked arrest. Some were tracked down and put on trial and went to prison. Most sentences were harsh and resisters suffered isolation and intimidation by prison staff and inmates alike.

Women in this era, as in the past and the present, were not subject to the selective service laws. Women could join as noncombatants in the war effort voluntarily. Many joined the military in this way. Some served the war effort by working in factories and jobs related to the war because there was a need for a total war effort. Although women were not required by law to “serve”, there was tremendous societal pressure to support and not question the war. Before the war was declared there was a huge peace movement of pacifists, isolationists, communists and socialists. Men and women throughout the country were in these movements. When the war broke out most eligible men were drafted into the military or sent to Civilian Public Service (CPS) — or Conscientious Objector — camps, or prison for resisting. Women were left in charge of the pacifist organizations throughout the country. They supported the men in the CPS camps and in prison. They ran the pacifist organizations such as the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. They found rooms for conscientious objectors to sleep when they walked out of the CPS camps, which was breaking the law because they were harboring criminals. Many women organized and attended anti-war demonstrations and meetings. Other women attended trials of conscientious objectors who left the CPS camps and later visited them in prison when they were found guilty. Women were conscientious objectors in thought and action.

Jean Zwickel

Jean Zwickel moved to the Harlem Ashram in New York city after she was fired for refusing to conscript students during World War II. Married to Jewish CO Abe Zwickel, they remained active in the peace movement into their eighties. Here is her story:

I was finishing my second year of teaching when the war broke. The teachers were asked to help with registration of soldiers. I talked to the superintendent and said I didn't want to participate or cooperate with the war. I was not propagandizing in my classes against it but just didn't want any participation. He said that would be perfectly all right. There was a second call to the teachers to help with conscription. This was a little more urgent and a little more compulsory. Teachers were really expected to do their share. I did consent to help with the rationing of the gas, but registration I couldn't see. So when it came time to renew contracts I found I was out of a job. The excuse they gave me was that classes in German and French would be going down. I wouldn't be needed. But I'm sure the main cause was my opposition to the war.

Erna Harris

Erna Harris was a Black journalist who became active with pacifist and civil rights movements in Los Angeles, California, during World War II.

I was part of the War Resisters League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. I was a member, and I was there. We didn't formalize it as a support group, but I was there taking my chances for going to prison ... encouraging violation of the Selective Service Act and later when the guys were in the camp and some of them went over the hill [3] from camps. A lot of them spent several nights on the floor in my living room in the apartment I rented with Ella, a German girlfriend. She and I had a little apartment and I would move out of my room and sleep back in her room so the COs could sleep on the floor in my room. They didn't have any money and we were harboring criminals.

What we women were mostly doing was trying to take care of the guys who went to camp and make sure they didn't feel deserted, which was easy to feel, and to take care of the ones who didn't get their classification or who decided not to register [4] and, therefore, were in trials or on their way to prisons. I went to trails more than enough, and tried to be known to authorities as being part of this business because I didn't see any reason those guys should suffer more than the women. Women were raising money for bond [5], keeping in touch, being runners to check for bail bond to get the guys out, pulling cases together, stuff like that. Keep lawyers working. The ones that typed well, typed for the boys. I visited the camps, but I didn't come to pray with them or bring them cookies. I would commiserate and tell them we were trying to stop the war back there. So I probably was more welcome than a lot of others. Cookies and visits and people praying for them were nice, but what they needed was somebody to roust the government.

The stories of Jean Zwickel and Erna Harris are from ”Against the Tide: Pacifist Resistance in the Second World War”, an Oral History edited by Deena Hurwitz and Craig Simpson. The 1984 War Resisters League Calendar.

Introduction and footnotes by Joanne Sheehan and Craig Simpson


[1] Selective Service Act: The US Government conscription law.
[2] Civilian Public Service camp: where conscientious objectors did alternative service.
[3] Went over the hill: escaping from the camps, where they felt they were voluntarily submitting to their own imprisonment.
[4] Didn’t get their classification or who decided not to register: men in World War II and today are required by law to register for Selective Service. Some received a classification of “Conscientious Objector”. If they didn’t get the CO status or they didn’t register at all, they were subject to arrest and imprisonment.
[5] Bond/Bail Bond: Money that a person arrested needs to pay in order to get out of gaol before a trial.

Published in: Women and Conscientious Objection - An Anthology


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