Researching history can be a little like watching a soap opera — lots of drama.
That’s one thing that recently-retired St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor Gail Savage has learned over the years.
Savage, an Alexandria, Va., resident who retired last year after working at the college as a history professor for 25 years, recently had an essay published in Genealogy, an international online journal published quarterly by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute.
Savage’s essay is titled “From Good Time Girl to Damsel in Distress: Protecting the British War Bride in the U.S., 1944-1950.”
“For people who think that doing historical research is boring, they haven’t had a chance to read some of those files,” Savage said on Dec. 18.
Since she’s retired, Savage said she has more time to do research. Her additional time provides an opportunity to share it with others, she said, noting that she lived in the United Kingdom for four years and visited the British Isles nearly every year from 1977 to 2019.
“I’m interested in the lives of ordinary people,” she said. “I’m interested in how ordinary people make their lives as best they can amidst stressful or challenging circumstances.”
The focus of her essay was on how the British and U.S. governments dealt with women who had dalliances with or married U.S. service members who were stationed in Great Britain during World War II. Specifically, the governments intervened to help get spousal or child support or divorces for the women. But the efforts were not always successful.
Her essay states that the United Kingdom became an epicenter for transnational marriages during WWII (1939-1945), including 37,849 between U.K. women and American servicemen, and 40,886 between British women and Canadians.
The essay examines the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1944, which attempted to help women estranged or abandoned by their former lover or husband.
Savage noted that, once married, British women lost the protection of a legal regime that deprived them of their domicile and citizenship status, and their divorces were placed outside English and Scottish courts. However, the aforementioned law gave them access in those courts.
The British government attempted to get help from the American government for children fathered by U.S. servicemen, as any support from a soldier lasted only six months after his demobilization, Savage notes. Consular officials attempted to locate American fathers and persuade them to support their children.
In two of the cases, a preexisting marriage of the mother precluded marriage to the serviceman.
Savage noted that “the file on Rosemary Harris and Clarence Woodrow Lamb included several long, loving letters sent by Lamb to Harris, but his desire to marry her was thwarted by her marital status. After trying and failing to arrange for either her marriage or adoption, Lamb returned home, where he married an American woman. By the spring of 1948, he had one child and and another expected, and his unstable employment made it impossible to contribute any support to his child in England, although he promised he would as soon as he was able. The file documents do not record whether Lamb followed through with that commitment.”
She continued, “Similarly, Thomas Vermeer found himself unable to marry Marge Cornell because she was already married and unable to divorce her husband, who was a prisoner of war.” Vermeer at first gave Cornell money to help support their child, but he stopped when he was told that the funds could be claimed by Cornell’s husband. He then returned to the U.S., canceled his agreement of support and married an American woman, who had been waiting for his return.
Vermeer’s American fiancee wrote a letter to Cornell recommending that she reconcile with her husband and get on with her life, according to Savage’s research. Cornell claimed that Vermeer and her husband had met and agreed that Cornell would divorce her so that she could marry Vermeer, but that process took two years. Left on her own after the divorce, Cornell had to rely on help from her mother and her small wages, although these made her ineligible for public assistance.
Milton Hiatt married Joyce Costen during the war with the consent of American military authorities. However, the marriage was invalid because Hiatt was already married and he refused to support the child of the purported marriage. An employee of the American Veterans Administration observed that Hiatt seemed mentally unstable and any letter from Hiatt about support of his child “would not be worth the paper it was written on.” British consulate officials attempted to locate Hiatt, and when they did two months later, found that he had reenlisted but went AWOL. He was apprehended two months later and agreed to support his child.
Efforts to obtain maintenance for illegitimate children were often in vain, Savage writes, but officials had greater success in facilitating divorces. Wives seeking financial help for themselves and their children from estranged husbands did not fare any better than single mothers, she writes.
The wife of Victor Mahair claimed in 1948 that she had not heard from her husband since his return to the U.S. following their 1945 marriage. When consular officials contacted Mahair in New Hampshire, he told them that he had sent her money to rejoin him, and she replied that she could not leave her mother and sister at that time. Mahair, a Catholic, did not wish to pursue a divorce, but he would not support his wife as long as she lived separately from him.
Similarly, John Strickland of Sweetwater, Tenn., would not support his wife unless she gave him custody of their child. Strickland’s wife wrote that she would “never, never come to America,” and her documented refusal gave him grounds for divorce in Tennessee.
In March 1948, Joyce Wilcox was shocked when her American husband filed for divorce after she twice postponed her journey to join him.
Savage concludes that the people in cases taken up by consular officials contradicted stereotypes of husbands and wives. “The ideological elements of the images of both the goodtime girl and the victimized bride proved inadequate,” she wrote. “As consular officials perhaps understood ... actual people led lives more complicated than those suggested by any [stereotype].”
Savage’s 16-page essay can be downloaded at www.mdpi.com/2313-5778/4/4/114/pdf.