They’re nothing but diseased harlots looking for a free pass to America,” the newspapers said. At the beginning of World War II, British women got a lot of bad press. But by the end of the war — when seventy thousand American GIs headed home with British wives — the media was backpedaling as fast as it could. Once the women became war brides and Americans-to-be, they became “good,” “loyal,” and “excellent mothers.”

“The media in wartime is very much related to what’s going on politically and culturally,” says Barbara Friedman, professor of journalism. Friedman wrote the book on how British women magically went from loose tramps to ideal homemakers in a mere four years — or rather, how media portrayals of them evolved. In From the Battlefront to the Bridal Suite, she explores how British and American media worked to respond to — and shape — images of how women and men should behave during wartime.

Recipe for love

When American troops first arrived in Britain, promoting friendly relations between the cultures was crucial to military success, Friedman says. Rural British towns — in which many people had never seen Americans before — were suddenly inundated with U.S. soldiers. Troops came in, took over people’s farms, and ruined land with their training maneuvers.

In efforts to warm relations between the cultures, the British government created a “hospitality program” that recruited English women to entertain American soldiers and make them feel welcome. They planned dances, socials, tours, parades, and invitations to private homes, particularly during the holidays.

Neither government intended to promote sexual relationships, Friedman says, but it was inevitable. “The more they encouraged women to entertain the troops, the more likely it was that something was going to come out of that. You couldn’t help that result — particularly when they were asking married wives of absent British soldiers to house American soldiers.”

And the climate was ripe for taking risks, the atmosphere abuzz with the fear and excitement of wartime. Many American GIs were eighteen or nineteen and away from home for the first time — terribly lonely and scared, but having to put on a brave face for the military. At the same time, many British women were experiencing their first forays in the public sphere, working and volunteering outside the home — where they met and socialized with American soldiers.

“Women were at the forefront of the war,” Friedman says. In London, for example, women spent their days at work and their nights against a backdrop of squealing air raids, terrified of being bombed out of their homes. “Their husbands were off fighting and their children may have been evacuated to the country,” Friedman says. “This created nervousness and loneliness. And one of the ways the anxiety of wartime gets expressed is through sex.”

Even if the women were looking for a ticket to America, who could blame them? Friedman asks. “They knew the rationing and price escalations in England would only get worse, and their lives would become more and more difficult as the war dragged on. Going to America meant having a bright future to look forward to.”

The lure of American men

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Pauline Arnold, now in her eighties, remembers the war as an exciting turning point in her life. Arnold was working as a volunteer when the GIs came to London. And when her supervisor asked the women to do whatever they could to make the U.S. soldiers comfortable, “they need not have asked twice,” she says. She and her friends loved the Americans because they were “faster” than British men. “American men would kiss you on the first date, and sometimes try a little more,” she says. British men, on the other hand, were “shy and reserved and boring.”

And popular British women’s magazines such as Woman’s Own romantically touted American men as more considerate, helpful around the house, and affectionate than their British counterparts. But the magazines were also very progressive and realistic about women’s motivations, Friedman says. Women’s magazines acknowledged that the United States was economically better-off than Britain — no need to scramble for rationed goods — and took into account that women, like men, were more sexual during wartime. “They didn’t encourage promiscuity,” Friedman says. “But in war there is a loosening of mores. And the magazines would tell women, ‘This is an exciting time. You have all these opportunities and should embrace them, regardless of what you do after the war.’”

By the time the American soldiers showed up, Londoners’ nerves were frayed from the terror raids, Friedman explains. “To British women, Americans seemed like heroes, here to save the day. And though these men might not have matched up to their movie image — which is how many Brits knew them — they still came in looking very grand. They had spiffier uniforms than the British and a lot more money.”

Keeping morale high

On the other side of the pond, women’s magazines were reassuring American wives that foreign women were no threat. The magazines downplayed the possibility of affairs, denouncing foreign women as unattractive. One magazine said of Pacific Islanders, “Those women might be slender now, but with their starchy diets, pretty soon they’ll be big and fat.” Another magazine assured American women that “the soldiers like spending time with the island dogs more than they do with those women.”

Because the media wanted to both keep war support strong and maintain readership, magazine writers chose not to focus on what might really be happening in bedrooms abroad, and instead tried to keep American women interested in homemaking, Friedman says. “If you read ‘Your husband’s not coming home to you’ in a magazine, you’re not going to be too concerned about coordinating the bedspread with the curtains anymore,” she says.

In contrast, British military publications (read mostly by military men) avoided the issue entirely. Newsprint was heavily rationed and there was plenty of war news, which didn’t leave much room for war brides. But the main concern was maintaining morale among British soldiers and encouraging cooperative relations with American GIs, Friedman says. It would have been demoralizing for British soldiers to know that so many British women were leaving with American men. “So when the military publications did write about women,” she says, “it was ‘Look how hard our women are working on the home front — they’re all waiting for you.’”

Mixed messages

When World War II began, U.S. military policy wasn’t clear on marriage. There were lots of draftees, and the government believed marriage was a personal choice. So military publications flip-flopped in their portrayal of British women as the rules for foreign marriages evolved. Before the marriages were outlawed, military press portrayed British women as potential wives. But once soldiers couldn’t marry abroad — the government didn’t want their men “distracted” from duty — the media did a one-eighty, Friedman says: British women were only good for sex.

And the U.S. military couldn’t ignore that its soldiers were having sex, though it was reluctant to blame them for the consequences. As the rate of venereal disease among soldiers rose, military leaders threatened GIs with punishment for contracting an infection — but at the same time, provided discreet treatment for it when the soldiers went home on leave, Friedman says.

Publicly, though, the U.S. military blamed British women for the spike in VD, calling them “loose women of low morals, who only wanted to get money from GIs.” Even after American men had married them and were taking them to the United States, doctors at the pre-embarkment processing station shined a flashlight between some brides’ legs to check for VD.

In the American style

Eventually the American military decided marriage was a personal right, and relaxed its ban: soldiers stationed abroad could marry, as long as their commanding officers approved. The British media seemed to barely notice at first, dismissing the brides as “an American problem.” But as the war ended, British attitudes toward the brides became increasingly hostile.

There was a lot of resentment, Friedman says. For starters, the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom wasn’t equal — America provided a lot of money to Britain at the end of the war, and the United States was better-off than Britain during the fighting and after it ended.

“Some of the resentment had to do with that imbalance,” she says. “The Americans came over and helped win the war, and when they left they took seventy thousand British women with them. And those women were sorely needed in Britain — for reconstruction, but mostly, to reproduce.”

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Once American soldiers started coming home with British wives, U.S. media changed their tune from chastisement to wholehearted support. U.S. military publications switched from calling British women “loose” to calling them “good women, who will make great Americans, as will their children.”

“The media were basically saying, ‘These aren’t the women we were talking about earlier. These are different women,’” Friedman says. “It was also a way to say, ‘Our soldiers behaved — they’re creating families.’ It was a way not to acknowledge that the soldiers had been entertaining themselves.”

Women’s magazines in the United States also revised their perspectives — foreign women were no longer ugly and boring, “but simply in need of help to become Americans.”

“They look up to you and want to be like you,” the magazines said to American women. “Let’s teach them how to cook American food and dress in the American style.” Even the Red Cross got involved, holding workshops for the war brides to learn American-style homemaking on ships bound for the United States.

“These women are courageous,” the magazines said. “They’re like pilgrims or pioneers.”

Coming home?

Like the pilgrims and pioneers, war brides didn’t necessarily have an easy ride once they reached American shores. “Some women complained that their husbands misrepresented their standing in the U.S., and were shocked to find they’d be living in substandard housing,” Friedman says. Others had trouble adjusting, but didn’t want to go back to England because it would be humiliating and expensive. And some women experienced a different kind of culture shock altogether: “My great-aunt came from London to a small farm in east Texas,” Friedman says, “and made the best of things.”

Despite these hardships, most Anglo-American marriages — like most marriages during World War II — endured, Friedman says. “There are Transatlantic Bride Clubs in the U.S., where the war brides still get together for companionship.”

Barbara Friedman is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She received a Junior Faculty Development Grant from UNC, a travel grant from University of Missouri, and funding from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication for her research. From the Battlefront to the Bridal Suite: Media Coverage of British War Brides, 1942–1946 is available from University of Missouri Press.