Source, Story: History
: Teaching U.S. History in the Archives

Women, Work and the War: Miriam Chrisman's World War II Letters

Miriam and Don Chrisman

Miriam Usher Chrisman (1920-2008) is best known for her scholarship on the social history of the German Reformation. She taught in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for more than twenty years. A meticulous record keeper and copious correspondent, Chrisman's papers at the UMass Amherst thoroughly document her academic and person life.

In the early 1940s, as the United States entered World War II, Miriam Usher was working as a post-war planner in Denver, Colorado. She and Donald Chrisman, a medical student at Harvard, had met some years before while Miriam was in college. Chrisman proposed in January 1943, and the couple announced their engagement later that year.

Letters between Don, Miriam, Don's parents, and a group of Miriam's girlfriends know as “the Society” paint an intimate portrait of the Chrismans' early relationship. These letters also demonstrate the way the war influenced their decisions about when and how to marry. Other letters provide a glimpse of “war work” far from Rosie the Riveter and the factory floor. . In her letters to Don and the Society, Miriam recounts the challenges she faces as a young woman making her way in a field dominated by men.

Finding aid for the Miriam Chrisman Papers

Lesson plan (pdf)

Courtship, Engagement, and Planning a “War Wedding”

January 1943: Miriam writes to a friend, recounting Don's proposal to “build our type of life together” after the war. ca.1943 digital object
Miriam writes to Don, indicating she would like to get married after he finishes his residency. Note Don's annotations on envelope. 1943 Jan. 17 digital object
Don's mother writes to him about Miriam:“Why don't you promptly get engaged if you're so fond of your love?” 1943 Feb. 13 digital object
Don's father writes to him about Miriam: “Tell us about her complexion, eyes, height, weight, education, religion, sports preferences etc.” 1943 Feb. 15 digital object
Don's father writes to him about Miriam: “It maybe she could keep her job, do better work, etc. if she knew she had someone among the fighting forces that was hers.” 1943 Mar. 30 digital object
Miriam writes to a friend:“We have decided to announce it officially next Wednesday.” 1943 May 6 digital object
Miriam writes to The Society: “It's all public, in the papers and that sort of thing, and I'm walking around with a ring on my engagement finger.” 1943 June 7 digital object
Don writes to Miriam: “I got my final physical and was qualified for active duty without comment.” 1943 July 3 digital object
Miriam writes to Don, pushing for a wedding date: “I'm getting scared about how much longer our luck is going to hold.” 1943 Aug. 8 digital object
Miriam and Don's wedding invitation 1943 Nov. digital object
Miriam writes to the Society about the wedding: “Don called and said that he had the leave and could we get married please.” 1943 Nov.? digital object
[excerpt] Miriam reports on her score from a psychological test in a woman's magazine 1944 June digital object

Post-War Planning and the the War Work of a Upper Middle Class White Woman

Miriam writes to a friend detailing her work for the National Resource Planning Board in Denver, Colorado. 1943 Jan.? digital object
Miriam writes to Don, describing a supervisor's suggestion that she needs to develop her typing and shorthand skills. Note Don's annotations on envelope 1943 Feb. 8 digital object
Miriam writes to Don, describing her successful presentation to the committee that supervises her work. 1943 Feb. 12 digital object
Don writes to Miriam: “I wonder if those 'nice' men in Denver aren't doing a swell bit of axe grinding to get a pretty damn good assistant.” 1943 Feb. 14 digital object
Miriam writes to Don: “Despite the fact that all my supervisors told me I couldn't possibly do the job the fact remains that I have.” 1943 Feb. 20 digital object
Miriam writes to Don about prospects for promotion at her job. 1943 Feb. 24 digital object
Don writes to Miriam about the impact of the war on the workforce, and on her promotion: “Intelligence and ability stand out in whoever has it.” 1943 Feb. digital object
Miriam writes to friends about her work and the possibility that the Planning Board will be shut down. 1943 May 21 digital object
National Planning Association brochure and membership card 1944 May 5 digital object