The College during World War II




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Even before the official start of World War II in September, 1939 with the invasion of Poland by Germany, Sarah Lawrence students paid close attention to the events leading up to the war as they unfolded. Almost every issue of the student newspaper, The Campus, contained editorials and/or articles on Hitler, fascism, and the developing hostilities in Europe. When the United States entered the war in 1941, the seriousness of the hostilities hit home at Sarah Lawrence College. As with other colleges and universities, in particular, other women's colleges, World War II had a profound effect on the role of a Sarah Lawrence education and altered the path of the College's history forever.


One of the most profound changes at the College with the onset of World War II was the altered curriculum. In January 1942, President Constance Warren, along with Director of Education Beatrice Doerschuk, attended a meeting of college administrators and government representatives "to discuss the part which the colleges should play in the war." Warren writes in her 1942 President's Report that the meeting was concerned "much more with men's than with women's colleges but men and women alike were urged to complete their college courses whenever possible." This set the tone for the education of women on the homefront for the duration of the war.

Sarah Lawrence's "flexible education" allowed for courses to focus on the needs of the war. Already existing courses found new purposes. For example, "psychology courses train students to care for children in times of stress and particularly in nursery schools where women may leave their children while working in war industries. Students in the social sciences are being prepared... for positions as junior economists and statisticians." In addition, the College added regular courses, such as Science in Wartime, and extracurricular courses to help train women for war related work. "The need of industry for women with laboratory training in physics is growing rapidly and we are planning to meet it at the College [with]... extracurricular courses in typing, stenography, photography, [and] recreational leadership" (President's Report, May 1942). Courses such as Nutrition, Recreational Leadership (training students to work with children in community centers as leaders for games, stunts, and dancing), Motor Mechanics and First Aid became very popular. As the war progressed, the training needs for war work changed. Interest waned for Red Cross, nutrition and recreational leadership courses, while demand increased for training in "hospital recreational work," occupational therapy, and the Recreational Occupations Workshop where students learned to teach "card weaving, square knotting, clay modeling and block printing" to patients in hospitals. (President's Report, April 1944)

The curriculum was also affected by the rearrangement of the college calendar. Beginning with the 1942-43 year, the College reduced the academic year from thirty-four to thirty-two weeks to provide "a longer period in the summer for students who plan to take jobs or to attend summer school." (President's Report, December 1942) The calendar changed even further when the College began a summer session in 1943. As a result of much discussion between the administrators of women's colleges and government representatives, "it was evident that this coming shortage [of young people with a college education] was a source of worry to the large war industries... We became convinced that the trend of the times was toward summer sessions by which a student could cut down the time required [for] the A.B. degree." (President's Report, May 1943) The New York State Board of Regents announced that, for the duration of the war, 120 weeks would be considered sufficient for a Bachelor's degree in New York. Therefore, the College established its first summer session. This accelerated program, consisted of two terms of sixteen weeks each and one more term of eight weeks during the summer allowing a student to graduate in three years instead of four. The summer session specifically centered around the war and post-war problems.

Constance Warren expressed concern over the lack of attention given to women's colleges during the war, particularly by the government. Her concern extended to the place of women's higher education as well as the possibility that liberal arts education would fall to the need to train men and women for industry. In her December 1942 President's Report, she writes:

Up to this time the concern of our government with education and its relation to the war has been with men, not women. There is confusion and lack of direction in national policy concerning the education of women... the leaders of colleges educating women are puzzled... There is serious danger that vocational courses may crowd out the liberal arts entirely or place the teaching of such subjects as literature, philosophy, history and the arts in the category of 'fills and furbelows,' obliged to apologize for taking what little room is left for them.

Despite the lack of government interest in women's liberal arts colleges, Constance Warren recognized the importance of the war in opening up the working world to women. She continues in her 1942 report:

Never has there been a moment in the world's history when so many doors of opportunity were open to women or so much assumption of responsibility was expected of them. A college education must count. For that reason I am not in sympathy with spending too much time in training college women for jobs which can as easily be performed by any high school graduate. I think we should expect more of our students and train them for more, both for work connected with the war and for the responsibilities of living in the post-war period.

While Warren saw how valuable the war could be to furthering women's roles in the United States, she also reminded the Board of Trustees that "At the same time we must not forget that we are educating women who still look forward hopefully to a day when they may have homes and children."

Another aspect significantly affecting the curriculum was the constantly changing faculty due to opportunities for war work as well as the draft. Constance Warren noted the effect of this early on in the war in her May 1942 President's Report: "Not only has the war affected the enrollment of students but it has also depleted the faculty." However, Warren was quick to express the dedication of the faculty that remained at the College. "I can pledge the devotion of the faculty to these objectives as our contribution to the war effort."

A number of special programs and projects resulted from the changed curriculum during the war. These included the publication of the "Nutrition Notes" songbook in 1943, the United Nationalities Round Tables with community members focusing on race and ethnicity, and the establishment of the Committee on Information on Children in Wartime. These special projects provided students with opportunities to become a part of the larger community outside of the College.

Student Life

The onset of World War II dramatically altered the life of students on campus beyond changes in the curriculum and faculty. In contrast to the expected decline in enrollment, applications of women for admission to college increased. President Warren, in her April 1944 President's Report attributed this trend to four causes:

  1. more money in circulation and fewer luxuries to buy with it;
  2. most parents are relieved of the cost of educating their sons;
  3. an increasing realization of the importance of training women to be self-supporting in an uncertain world;
  4. an increasing realization of the importance of training women to contribute to its betterment.

In addition, students were informed of the "call" of the "war effort... for greater emphasis than ever before on 'keeping fit,' both in preparation for war services and to spare overworked doctors." Constance Warren wrote in her May 1942 President's Report that the College intends to "cooperate fully" in this program of "keeping fit."

The most drastic effect of the war on student life came as a result of labor shortages, food rationing, and supply rationing. As many employees left Sarah Lawrence to work in the defense industry, the College felt the strain of the labor shortage particularly in the various services on campus including in the dining room, kitchen, and janitorial staff. Before students returned to campus for the 1943-44 year, the College informed them that they "must be prepared to give the College the equivalent of an hour a day of service." (President's Report, November 1943) Constance Warren saw this "pitching in" as a type of war work. "This is a type of war work which all of us should be able to take in our stride." (President's Report, May 1942) Instead of being served in the dining rooms, the buffet style service or "cafeteria" style dining was employed. When students were served, it was by other students who waited on tables without pay to take the place of waitresses who left for war industry jobs. By the end of the war all dining was cafeteria style.

The war also affected the campus social life. Traditionally, many Sarah Lawrence students left campus on weekends to go home or to visit other larger universities such as Princeton and Yale. There were very few weekend activities to hold their interest on campus. Constance Warren saw this as an opportunity; "Because of war conditions there has been less temptation to the students to take week-ends away... therefore there is more opportunity to plan week-end entertainments." (President's Report, April 1944) When the new president, Harold Taylor, arrived in 1945, he recognized the enhanced social life on campus. "During the current year, a new sense of unity amongst all students has begun to develop, due partly to increased campus recreational and social life during the period of the war." (President's Report, November 1945) Director of Education, Beatrice Doerschuk also recognized the change in her report to President Taylor in November 1945. The students "themselves report a noticeably more wide-spread interest on the part of the student body as a whole in what their student government is doing, with a more general readiness to participate."

Sacrifices came in various forms. The College cooperated with the government request to relieve transportation difficulties during the holiday season by agreeing to a four-week holiday vacation and no spring vacation. In order to give students a break from the long period between January and June, students and faculty created Interim Week in the Spring during which students remained on campus but regular classes were suspended. For example, in February 1942, a five day conference at the College on Vocations and Defense was held covering job opportunities in various fields of interest. Other sacrifices included the cancellation of reunions at the request of the government, and student participation in maintaining the campus grounds. "The students have been most helpful this winter in saving light and heat, have raked leaves in squads, and got up early to shovel paths when there was snow." (President's Report, April 1944)

War Board and War Activities

Students acutely felt the need to assist in the war effort. The first order of business was the establishment of the Student War Board. Established in Spring 1942, under the direction of Ruth Lee, the War Board was in full swing for the beginning of the Fall 1942 semester. The Board organized students through a registration system in which students filled out cards indicating what they were interested in pertaining to war work. All requests that came to the College went through the War Board which parsed out the various jobs to different students. By November 1942, 257 of 291 students had registered with the War Board. "The Board interviewed each student registered and began placing them through the Office of War Activities... The list [of placements] includes only independent volunteer work, not work students are doing in either curricular or extra-curricular courses." (President's Report, December 1942)

The War Board created various committees to handle all the aspects of war work. The committees included Bond and Stamp, Knitting, Tea Dance, Salvage, Poster, Publicity, and Registration. The Bond and Stamp Committee organized to sell defense stamps and bonds, at which they were very successful.

Other types of work assigned by the War Board, included aiding in hospitals and caring for children. In addition, 64 students took air raid warden training, 192 faculty and students attended Red Cross courses in first aid, motor mechanics, home nursing and nutrition either on campus or in Bronxville. Much of the work revolved around entertaining and teaching midshipmen from Columbia University's Naval Training Program, and wounded GIs at Camp Shanks and Fort Slocum rehabilitation hospitals.

Despite the decline over the years in the numbers of student participants, overall the War Board was deemed a success. The Board was particularly successful early on in the war which prompted Constance Warren to write in her April 1942 President's Report, "War work and allied community activities are developing so rapidly at the College that it is impossible to enumerate all of them." A sign of the Board's significance was the move to the Alumnae House in the summer of 1943. Now the Communitea House, the Alumnae House was at the very center of campus and the War Board occupied that prominent space. The Board maintained its "active services" in Westchester County and New York City throughout the remainder of the war. Their work allowed the College to become "more closely identified with our community through the services which we have been able to contribute toward its wartime needs." (President's Report, May 1943).

At the end of the war, the Student War Board saw the need to continue the various volunteer and community activities organized during the war. Immediately after the war ended, the War Board changed its name to the Community House and functioned out of the same office, then called the Community House, with the same aims of carrying on in the community with post-war activities.


Overall, Sarah Lawrence College became a new college during World War II altering some of its focus to meet the needs of the day while maintaining its commitment to an individualized liberal arts education. As a result of the war, the role of the College appeared to change in relation to women's lives. Harold Taylor, in his first President's Report in November 1945, articulates the changes well:

"In reviewing the general effect of the war upon student life at the College, it can be said that this generation of women students has become more conscious of the variety of roles which women can play in society than ever before. This is reflected in an increased concern by our students for adequate vocational guidance. An even wider variety of interests has been introduced, - vocational, intellectual, political, - and a new independence has grown.

In view of this change, women's education must help with the problem involved in a changed pattern of family life, where conflicts between the duties of motherhood and the enjoyment of independent interests are often strong enough to destroy successful marriages... "