Leslie Sewell doesn’t mind letting the National World War II Memorial “have all the really rah-rah patriotic stuff.” But the 59-year-old Washingtonian happens to be less interested in the memorial’s May 28 dedication than an event that will take place two weeks later: the debut of Government Girls of World War II, her documentary about the women who came to Washington to administrate the war. Among the many recent opportunities to honor the “brave boys” who stormed Normandy and Iwo Jima, the one-hour film offers a modest corrective.
“I’m interested in the history of people whose stories don’t get told very often,” explains the jumpsuited Sewell at her home in Glover Park. “I spent a long part of my career at NBC Nightly News covering politicians and presidents and people like that. But there are a lot of ordinary people, and their stories don’t get told very much.”
The subject of female government personnel of the ’40s wasn’t a preoccupation for Sewell, who left her career at NBC to freelance. “I had wanted to do a documentary for a very long time,” she says. “I was interested in this period. Also, I have an interest in women’s political history. So I started just reading a lot, and I came across the “government girls.” That melded a lot of different interests I have. It all seemed to come together in one topic.”
One of the filmmaker’s first calls was to University of Maryland, College Park, professor Robyn Muncy, a historian who appears in the film. Sewell says that Muncy “had done a lot of work with older women on other projects she had worked on. She gave me a few names. So I called them, and a couple of them hadn’t worked for the government, but they had friends who had. You know how it goes. Once you find two or three, they say, ‘Oh, I had a friend,’ or ‘My sister did it,’ or whatever. Pretty soon I had a list.”
Ultimately, Sewell interviewed about 60 former government girls—only a fraction of the more than 900,000 who came to D.C. during the war. “I had a list longer than that. I found tons of them, and they were just a fascinating group of women. The women I interviewed on camera are sharp as a tack. They have very clear recollections.
“They’re all in their 80s by now,” she adds, “so I wanted to get their stories before they were gone, basically.”
At first, Sewell admits, “I didn’t even know what I was looking for. Because I didn’t know what the range was. It turns out the range was fairly huge….I had women who worked in the intelligence services, who I think had the most interesting jobs. Some worked doing economic analysis. There was a lot of logistical work involved in Washington.”
Only eight former government girls appear in the finished film. One of them is Florence Orbach, who came from Hicksville, N.Y., in 1943 to work at the
Pentagon and never left the area.
“I had only been to Washington once before,” says Orbach, who now lives in Silver Spring. “A trip to Washington was our reward when we graduated from high school. And I fell in love with the city. It was so romantic, the first view of it, getting out of Union Station. We went there during cherry-blossom time. It was just lovely.”
Three years later, the then-21-year-old was back, working as a clerk and living in Arlington Farms, a dormitory for female federal workers. The experience “changed my life completely,” Orbach recalls. “I came from a small town. I met people who introduced me to chamber music. My first date was at the Library of Congress for a string quartet. It opened a whole new world to me. I met my husband here. I joined the union. I got to know black people.”
In fact, Orbach became a supporter of what was called the “double-victory campaign” to win the war abroad and racial equality at home. In the process, she shed her original fiancé. “I grew up in a town where there were no blacks allowed,” she says. “I always felt that was unjust….I broke off my engagement because, much to my amazement, [he] didn’t like the idea of my going to dances and dancing with black people. I thought, Well, this fellow is too narrow-minded for me.” She laughs. “He wanted to be a chicken farmer.”
After being interviewed for the film, Orbach admits, “I kind of felt depressed. It didn’t last long, but I was so surprised by my reaction to it. Maybe it’s just because of the idea that I’m so old, and I don’t feel old. But some of the things that happened were sad.”
In fact, in Government Girls, Orbach reveals that her brother-in-law was killed on a mission over Germany when he was 21 and that a close friend lost her boyfriend in the war.
Also interviewed in the film is former National Council of Negro Women head Dorothy Height, who discusses segregation from an African-American perspective. Prominent liberal-minded women of the time, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Marlene Dietrich, appear in archival footage. There’s also a clip of Lloyd Bridges from a ’40s propaganda film, extolling the importance of women’s logistical work in gee-whiz terms: “One slip-up—well, it could cost us the war!”
“A lot of the material that we used either hasn’t been used at all before, or certainly hasn’t been used much before,” says Sewell. She and film researcher Tim Goldsmith “had to search for really strange terms to come up with the stuff we found. If you go on the [National] Archives Web site to research their catalog and you type in ‘government girls,’ nothing will come up. I don’t even think anything will come up if you type in ‘women workers during World War II.’”
One discovery that Goldsmith made was a movie about the U.S. disinformation campaign to sap the morale of Japanese soldiers in Burma—which happened to be the very project that had employed former Office of Strategic Services staffer Elizabeth McIntosh, one of the women interviewed in the movie. “I intercut that with her talking about it,” says Sewell. “It’s one of my favorite parts of the film.”
Sewell didn’t look at other documentaries for inspiration, deliberately avoiding The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, Connie Field’s 1980 study of women industrial workers during the war. And she soon found that her old ways of working couldn’t be reproduced.
“I’ve always been used to being in a really big news organization,” she says. “I didn’t really realize how much I depended on that. When I really started doing this, it was just mind-boggling.”
The pace and responsibilities were different, Sewell discovered. So was the potential for second thoughts. “I had been used to working where I came home at 7:30 at night, after the program was on the air, and that was it,” she says. “It took me a long time to adjust to not having that daily deadline, and to being able to second-guess everything. I rewrote the script many, many times.”
Working mostly from her house, Sewell sometimes felt isolated. “When I’m not editing or shooting, I spend most of my time here,” she says, indicating her tidy home office. “A lot of self-doubts can creep in.”
The cash flow was another contrast to working at NBC. “The very first grant I got was for only $2,500—which is television terms is, like, nothing,” she says. “But it was enough money to hire a crew and do my first interviews. Then I would wake up in a cold sweat, 2 o’clock in the morning: Oh my God, I’ve spent this money. I can’t give it back. I’m never going to get another grant, so I’m not going to be able to go on. I’ve interviewed these women and gotten them all sort of hyped up about being involved. So I feel sort of responsible for them. What am I going to do?
“That was really terrifying.”
Ultimately, of course, Sewell did get enough money to finish the film, principally from the Kiplinger Foundation, the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. For narration, she enlisted National Public Radio personality Cokie Roberts.
Now that Government Girls is done, Sewell has received numerous invitations to screen it at colleges and universities. She admits to surprise at learning that today’s students are fascinated by people who were their age 60 years ago. “I figured the older generation was going to be interested, because it was their story,” she says. “And the baby boomers were interested, because it was their parents. But I wasn’t sure about college students and 20-somethings.”
Early viewers, the director says, have responded well to the film’s refusal to glamorize the war years. “I think the film is inspirational, but it also talks about the costs of war. There were a lot of terrible things. Families suffered, they lost loved ones, and life here was difficult. Blackouts at night. People were afraid of submarines off the shore. The kids particularly seem to pick up on that.”
Still, the movie’s essential attraction is the government girls themselves, whose enthusiasm for the wealth of new roles that was suddenly offered them is palpable. “Many of these women, this was really a high point in their lives,” Sewell says. “They got beyond what they thought they would be able to do or what they thought their lives would be like.” CP
Government Girls of World War II screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 15, at the City Museum of Washington, D.C., 801 K St. NW. For more information, call (202) 383-1809.