From Doughnut Girls to Den Mothers and Cheerleaders

The U.S. military has long relied on women to entertain the troops. Here’s how that’s slowly changing.

A U.S. Army military policeman stands guard in front of the stage as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders perform for American forces in Baghdad as part of their military USO tour on Sept. 15, 2007. (John Moore/Getty Images)
A U.S. Army military policeman stands guard in front of the stage as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders perform for American forces in Baghdad as part of their military USO tour on Sept. 15, 2007. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Gina Cardi Lee describes herself as an ordinary “suburbanite kid who grew up in a nuclear family,” but her career in U.S. Army recreation gave her anything but an ordinary life. Raised in a working-class Italian family in Brook Park, Ohio, on the outskirts of Cleveland, her parents worked hard in factories so that Lee and her brother could go to college. At Bowling Green State University, only a couple hours away, Lee gravitated toward studies in recreation administration. After graduating in 1981, she immediately entered a master’s program in recreation management and earned her graduate degree the following year. She returned home to Brook Park, where, though overqualified, she worked 20 hours a week at the town’s large community recreation center. Her family wanted her to stay in the area and teach physical education in a local school, but Lee had no interest in teaching or staying home. When she saw an advertisement for a one-year, overseas position in the back of a parks and recreation journal, she jumped at the chance.

The ad did not provide much detail about the job, not even where it was located, but it did mention full benefits and a $20,000 annual salary, both “unheard of” in recreation work at the time. Not long after Lee mailed in the application, she was offered a position as a recreation specialist at an Army base in South Korea. She had two days to decide whether to accept. Although she didn’t consider herself “brave or an adventure seeker,” and though she knew nothing about the military, she decided that she could do anything for a year and accepted the offer. She received no training for her work before she left, only a few days of in-processing once she arrived, and soon found herself planning activities at a recreation club at Camp Casey, just a few miles south of the Demilitarized Zone dividing North and South Korea.

Although the military of the 1980s was becoming a more diverse force than it had ever been, the forces Lee worked with did not reflect recent changes. Camp Casey housed several thousand soldiers of the 2nd Infantry Division, which, at the time, included no women. Many of the soldiers were young, and all were on unaccompanied tours, which meant that even if they were married and had children, their families remained at home. Thus, Lee’s work mirrored the work of women who had operated recreation clubs in years past, and she found herself trying to “act like the mom or the big sister” to “kids, 18, 19 years old” who were not that much younger than herself. U.S. forces had been in South Korea for three decades by the time Lee arrived, and the camp towns that had grown alongside the American presence continued to motivate recreation work. “Right outside the gate were opportunities you won’t want to go home and tell mom about,” Lee said. Even something as simple as a card tournament was intended to provide the men with alternative ways to spend their free time.

The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines: Kara Dixon Vuic, Harvard University Press, 392 pp., $29.95, Feb. 4, 2019

In 1986, Lee transferred to West Germany, where her work changed dramatically. By this time, the Army had formalized a shift in recreation programming from a primary focus on single soldiers to families. Recreation clubs that had long focused on providing a wholesome environment for young, single soldiers morphed into community centers with programs targeting soldiers, their spouses, and their children. In addition to planning activities for young, single soldiers, Lee also developed morale programs for spouses, arranged family outings to chop down Christmas trees, planned Halloween parties, and organized communitywide chili cook-offs that attracted Army families from all over Europe.

The expanded focus also changed Lee’s relationship with soldiers and, in her mind, legitimized her as a professional recreation worker, not simply the “rec center lady.” After a few years in Germany, Lee fell in love with an Army officer, and the pair returned to the United States, where they married and began a family. By the 1980s, marriage and children no longer disqualified women from working in Army recreation, but frequent moves and child care demands made a full-time career difficult. Over the course of several years, she and her husband moved their five children to assignments in Hawaii, Arizona, and Virginia. Although she no longer worked in formally organized recreation programs, as her husband advanced in rank, she found that the Army expected her to perform informal, unpaid morale-boosting services for the units he commanded, especially when they deployed.

Lee’s work in recreation and morale services mirrored the broader changes occurring in military recreation during the last decades of the 20th century. The military’s increasing reliance on servicewomen and families led to a reconsideration of the ways women and women’s bodies had been used in and as entertainment. But the changes didn’t come quickly.

When President Richard Nixon mandated that the military become an all-volunteer force in 1973, he did so on the recommendation of free market economists who believed that competition on the job market would force the services to make themselves more appealing to the American public through increased pay and benefits. No longer required to serve by notions of citizenship or obligation, volunteers would join, they argued, because the military offered recruits the most attractive benefits. And not surprisingly, women wanted to sign up, too. Before the rise of the all-volunteer force, women were restricted to sex-segregated corps and to particular specializations in the medical and support fields. When forced to recruit and not draft members, the service branches began to recruit increasing numbers of women, who integrated service academies, aviation training, ships, and most specializations. By the end of the decade, women had grown from 1.3 to 7.6 percent of the military.

Many of these women brought or began families. Growing numbers of their male comrades did so as well. Indeed, whereas at the end of the Vietnam War 40 percent of enlisted personnel were married, by 1985 58 percent were, and 73 percent of them had children. These demographic changes demanded significant changes in military recreation and entertainment. The USO, which had provided the military with the bulk of its entertainment since World War II, for its part, had to reconsider the relationship between civilian society and a standing volunteer military.

In years past, military and civilian officials had insisted that a civilian-military connection was critical to reminding young male soldiers of the moralizing influences of home and family and to exerting democratic values on soldiers who would return to civilian life at the end of their enlistment. But now it would have to branch out from entertainment programs and homey clubs for wartime soldiers to a permanent role in providing essential civilian support for the military, including through family programming and day camps.

To be sure, the USO, at times, still uncomfortably catered to men. Although servicewomen had been welcome to visit USO centers for decades, even in the early 1970s they sometimes found themselves serving as dance partners for their male colleagues. National USO officials knew they needed a better way of working with servicewomen and directed in June 1976 that women should “retain their identity as military personnel” when they entered clubs, instead of being used as de facto civilian volunteers. In an unfortunate turn of phrase, they directed that the “USO should get women out of the ‘escort business.’”

Despite a lack of more dedicated thinking about women’s morale needs, as the military increasingly integrated women into all aspects of military life and as family needs gradually subsumed the military’s focus on single men, Special Services women—that is, civilian women such as Lee hired by the Army to run recreation clubs for soldiers—saw their roles broaden considerably. From the origin of Special Services recreation clubs, the women who staffed them had been required to be single—a policy that helped heighten the women’s appeal for young soldiers. Around 1969, however, the Army dropped the requirement, and a number of women working in recreation clubs married.

Perhaps even more disruptive to the traditional mission of using women as morale boosters, Special Services began hiring men to fill positions in recreation clubs. Men had worked in Special Services from its beginnings, but until the mid-1970s, they held only administrative positions. They did not work directly with soldiers as recreation club staff until the late 1970s. One of the first men to do so worked in a club in Bad Kissingen, Germany, and though the men who visited the club liked him, his supervisor remembered, they were never drawn to the center by him as soldiers had been drawn to centers by female workers in the past.

Even if military and civilian efforts to entertain service members have changed considerably since World War I, they have also retained some historical trappings. It’s unlikely that anyone in the 1990s military thought that the regularly touring professional cheerleaders would keep service members out of trouble in the same ways that military and civilian leaders had hoped American women would do in earlier eras. Military and civilian officials no longer created programs with the specific intent of providing women whose friendly smiles would counter the negative consequences of mobilization and deployments. Indeed, the forces that deployed to the Persian Gulf and the Balkans in the 1990s were the first to deploy without American women specifically chosen to be surrogate mothers, sisters, wives, or sweethearts who would serve them coffee and doughnuts and dance with them in recreation centers.

Nonetheless, even as morale programs broadened their focus in the years following the Vietnam War and as military officials made some efforts to desexualize entertainment, female workers sometimes found that servicemen sought them out, seeking to connect with a woman from home. And, even as the military relied on increasing numbers of family members and servicewomen, and as officials confronted embarrassing scandals about sexual harassment, women continued to dance across stages for the amusement—and the derision—of men and women in uniform. The inherent contradictions that underscored military entertainment in the early 20th century remained integral to it at the century’s end.

It is not a bad thing that these programs came to an end. In using women as symbols of the family for which men fought and to which they hoped to return, the military and civilian organizations associated women with home and the homefront, even when they went to war. Programs employing women to serve hot chocolate and Kool-Aid to soldiers positioned them as servicemen’s supporters, not their equals. Organizations that held up women as symbols of both wholesome and sexualized ideals placed them in untenable and often dangerous situations. Recreation and entertainment programs that offered women as antidotes to the military suggested that they had no place in it. Thousands of women throughout the 20th century gladly took on these tasks, and many of them embraced the conventions of their work. Others recognized its limitations but nonetheless derived great satisfaction from their efforts to comfort and cheer men who were called on to kill and die in their name. As women comprise an ever-increasing part of the U.S. military and as society continues to reckon with the legacies of historical limitations on women’s wartime service, it is worth considering not only what role women should play in military entertainment but what role we all should play.

Excerpt adapted from THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR: BRINGING THE HOME FRONT TO THE FRONT LINES by Kara Dixon Vuic, published by Harvard University Press.

Kara Dixon Vuic is the Benjamin W. Schmidt professor of war, conflict, and society in 20th-century America at Texas Christian University and the author of The Girls Next Door: Bringing the Home Front to the Front Lines.