Women and World War II

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Making women soldiers was the most radical experiment ever undertaken in American gender roles. World War II was a total war, which required full utilization of womanpower. The American way of warfare was based on elaborate managerial systems; as a consequence, one-fourth of those in the military were assigned to paperwork duty. The generals wanted men to fight in combat, not "waste" their time in clerical work. The British had already successfully mobilized more of their resources than any other nation; they drafted women, assigning some to munitions factories and putting others (including Princess Elizabeth) into Army uniforms.


The American high command followed the British model in 1942. In May, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was created with an ambiguous status, half in and half out of the Army. In July the Navy by-passed the auxiliary stage and created the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), granting the same status as reservist men. By November the Coast Guard had created the SPARS (Latin motto: Semper Paratus); the women Marines began in February, 1943. In June, 1943 the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and gained full military status. In 1942, society women and women college administrators worked with Congress and the Pentagon to secure necessary legislation; they pointed to thousands of patriotic young women anxious to serve their country in non-combat roles. Indeed, almost all women who enlisted cited patriotism as their primary reason for volunteering.

women at war

The military hired many civilians but did not fully trust them. They wanted secrets confined to soldiers under military discipline. They wanted to be able to move people around whenever and wherever urgency demanded,

no matter how long the hours or how unpleasant the conditions. They wanted no one to quit. At first, the main objective was to replace men working the typewriters, mimeograph machines, and telephones. In contrast to the media image of women as pilots or mechanics doing "men's work," in practice the overwhelming majority served in jobs traditionally labeled as "women's work" on the home front. Confounding the myth that women were unsuited for military life, they mastered military language and customs, thrived at marching, accepted the discipline, excelled at their jobs and enjoyed the experiences.

The most supportive unit was the Army Air Force, using women in the largest numbers and in the greatest variety of jobs. Women were concentrated in the Chemical Corps and Signal Corps, but were not used as extensively elsewhere. The Army Ground Forces, which operated training camps in the States, asked that its allocation of 5,000 WACs clericals be reduced to 3,600. The Air Force employed 1000 women in the Women's Auxilliary Service Pilots (WASP), technically with civilian status, which ferried bombers and towed practice targets, but which never had a combat role. Directed by flamboyant Jacqueline Cochran, WASP avoided any affiliations with the WAC.

Servicewomen provided about a tenth of the office-power the military needed, as well as highly appreciated nursing skills. As the quantity and quality of available manpower ran thin, the senior commanders came to realize that women were not just emergency substitutes for men, but valuable performers in a multitude of roles. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was an early convert, calling on WAC commander Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby for thousands of reinforcements for his London headquarters. He played a key role in making the WAC permanent in 1948. The Adjutant General optimistically estimated that 1.5 million WACs could be used in 406 of the 628 Army military occupations. The Navy had much the same learning curve. In the Twelfth Naval District, by September, 1945, over 8,000 WAVES held 30 different rates and performed 130 different activities; they were restricted to the continental United States. Women comprised six out of seven of the enlisted personnel in the Marine Corps Headquarters and over half of the uniformed Navy staff in the Pentagon.

Soldiers and civilians both welcomed nurses, a profession with a highly favorable image, but one controlled by doctors and the Red Cross. During the war, the women nurses took control, making their field a true profession. Nurses began to do tasks commonly reserved only for doctors stateside and ventured into new fields such as psychological nursing. Often a major civilian hospital would set up an entire general military hospital of doctors and nurses, mobilized as a team. The entire group was then sent to the European theater or to the South Pacific. Nearly half of the eligible civilian nurses in the country joined the Army or Navy Nurse Corps, the highest service rate by far of any occupational group, male or female. Another 150,000 were in pre-induction training in the Cadet Nurse Corps as the war ended.

Public opinion turned negative in 1943, led by soldiers who feared large numbers of servicewomen would take over the safe jobs and ship them off to combat. They circulated false rumors to the effect that many women were lesbians, sexually loose, or otherwise unwholesome. In reality, the women were much less sexually active than the men. Recruiting plunged and in the end only 350,000 women served. At peak strength there were about 100,000 WACs, 47,000 Army nurses, 11,000 Navy Nurses, 86,000 WAVES, 10,000 SPARS and 23,000 Marines. The segregated Army set a ceiling of 10 percent black women in the WAAC/WACs but never reached over 6 percent. The Army Nurse Corps allowed a few black women. The Navy rejected black WAVES and nurses until 1945, when President Roosevelt demanded that token numbers be admitted.


Instead of disliking regimentation, women discovered systematic, rigidly enforced discipline produced soaring morale. They became more mature, more realistic, more open-minded, more independent, assertive, and interested in learning and in travel. The military gave them a rare opportunity to learn and practice leadership and management skills. Veterans said their military experience enabled them to better manage time, relate to people, and juggle multiple assignments whether working inside or outside the home. They found life-time friends and, often, husbands as well. Looking back, most veterans recalled their service with pride and satisfaction. Wartime service had transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and their families. It had elevated the status of women in society as patriots. Their legacy would inspire future generations of women to advance the cause of equality in society and in the armed services. Women fighter pilots of the twenty first century stand on the shoulders of World War II's service women.


Campbell, D'Ann. Women at War With America: Private Lives in a Patriotic Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Godson, Susan H. Serving Proudly: A History of Women in the U.S. Navy. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Novato, CA: Presido Press, 1982.

Meyer, Leisa D. Creating G. I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Treadwell, Mattie. The Women's Army Corps. In the series U.S. Army in World War II: Special Studies, Washington, DC: Office of the Chief of Military History, Dept. of the Army, 1954.

D'Ann Campbell

See also:Cochran, Jackie; Feminism; Roosevelt, Eleanor; Rosie the Riveter; Women, Employment of.