Women in Uniform

views updated May 17 2018

Women in Uniform

The only women serving in the U.S. military when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, were a few thousand in the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps. By the end of World War II (193945), more than 350,000 women had served in the U.S. military. Women in the military supported the total American war effort by carrying out essential noncombat responsibilities. The idea of women serving in the military in any role outside of nursing was a new concept for the American public, a concept that was difficult for many Americans to accept.

After much debate in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, Congress created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May 1942. On July 30, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345) signed a bill authorizing the navy, Coast Guard, and marines to accept women. That same day the U.S. Navy established the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES. In November 1942 the Coast Guard created its women's reserve, known as SPAR (the name SPAR came from the Coast Guard motto: Semper ParatusAlways Ready). In February 1943 the

Marine Corps established the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. On July 3, 1943, the army dropped the term "Auxiliary" from the official name of its women's reserve, so the WAAC became simply the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Together the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps accepted approximately sixty thousand women during the war years. Additionally, more than one thousand women served in the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), ferrying new planes to locations where the military received them for war service, towing targets for antiaircraft firing practice, and testing repaired aircraft.

When women first joined the military, they were assigned to clerical tasks most of the time; this was the typical role assigned to female workers in the civilian world as well. Women in the military often served as typists and file clerks, freeing male recruits for other tasks. Soon women showed they were capable of performing almost any task, and the military began to assign them to a variety of positions, from auto and aircraft mechanics to air traffic controllers. To solve its manpower shortage, the military could not simply bring in civilian women to do these tasks. They had to officially admit the women to the military so they could be subject to military orders that might assign them to different jobs and locations as needs arose. Even if it had been practical from a military standpoint to hire civilian women, the military could not have afforded the higher wages civilian workers commanded in the wartime economy.

Nurses in the army and navy and other women in the army were never prohibited from overseas assignment. However, in the beginning, WAVES, SPARS, and women marines were banned from serving outside the continental United States. In late 1944 Congress approved a bill allowing limited assignments to Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. In early 1945 a few WAVES, SPARS, and women marines served in Alaska and Hawaii.

WAC: Women's Army Corps

When the United States officially entered World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. military personnel was put to full use. The military needed more recruitsfast. Many people serving in Congress and many in the general population did not think women belonged in the military. However, General George Marshall (18801959), army chief of staff, saw no reason to train men how to type, file, and operate telephone switchboards when thousands of women were already skilled in these areas. He supported a bill that sought to establish a women's army corps; the bill had been presented in the House by Massachusetts representative Edith Nourse Rogers (18811960). President Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (18841962), also supported this legislation.

Although many in the House of Representatives and the Senate firmly opposed Rogers's bill, the legislation

passed and became law on May 15, 1942. The bill, a compromise worked out with army leaders, created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). WAAC's stated purpose was to "release a man for combat duty." WAAC would make women available to serve in the army, but it would not be part of the regular, permanent army. WAAC would function as a separate, temporary unit for women. The army would provide uniforms, food, living quarters, and medical care. However, the women would receive lower pay than men of comparable rank in the regular army and would not receive continuing veterans' benefits such as life insurance, medical coverage, and death benefits. The bill did not prohibit women from being sent overseas; however, if WAACs were captured by the enemy, they would not be given the prisoner-of-war protections that men in the regular army were guaranteed. With this bill, Rogers achieved some standing for women within an organized army corps, but many protections were still lacking. Despite the inadequacies, women were eager to participate in the war effort, and they readily joined the WAAC.

General Marshall asked Oveta Culp Hobby (19051995) of Texas to head the WAAC. A lawyer, successful media executive, civic leader, and mother, Hobby had been serving as head of the Women's Interest Section in the War Department since the United States entered the war. Hobby pursued her new position with great zeal. To attract women for WAAC, Hobby had to convince the U.S. public that women who served in the WAAC could still be "ladies"that is, truly feminine by society's standards. Hobby set up an officers training school at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. Applicants for officers training had to be between twenty-one and forty-five years of age, with no children. Hobby received 35,000 applications and selected 440 women for the first officers training class, which began on July 20, 1942. The average age of the women in training was twenty-five; most had attended college and had been working as office managers, teachers, or executive secretaries. The first "auxiliaries"nonofficers equivalent to privates in the regular armybegan training on August 29. New training centers were soon established in Daytona Beach, Florida; Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia; and Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

Patriotism was the main reason women volunteered to serve in the WAAC. Sometimes they volunteered because there were no men of fighting age in their family; in other cases, they wanted to show support for a male family member in the service. Several of the first group of volunteers were widows from the Pearl Harbor attack. Many volunteers saw the WAAC as a chance to combine adventure and patriotic service. WAAC volunteers came from all over the country. Hometown newspapers interviewed local WAACs and published the letters when WAACs wrote home.

The first deployment of WAACs in the field was to Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) stations along the East Coast. The WAACs replaced volunteer civilians in monitoring aircraft positions within each station area. WAACs were also sent to army bases throughout the country, where they worked as typists and file clerks, answered telephones, or took over the drivers' positions in base motor pools. The army quickly realized that the women could do almost any job men could do.

About 40 percent of WAACs went to the army branch known as the Army Air Force (AAF). Roughly half of them were assigned to be weather fore-casters, cryptographers (code breakers who helped decipher German and Japanese messages), radio communication specialists, mechanics and maintenance specialists for army equipment, and air traffic controllers. Another 40 percent of WAACs went to the Army Service Forces; there they worked in munitions production as electricians, mechanics, and draftsmen. WAACs also served in the Transportation Corps, processing soldiers who were heading overseas and issuing them weapons. WAACs served in the laboratories of the Chemical Warfare Service, in the Quartermaster Corps (where they kept track of supplies stored across the country), in the Signal Corps, and in the Army Medical Department. A number of WAACs assisted with the Manhattan Project, the project to develop the country's first atomic bomb. About 20 percent of WAACs served in the Army Ground Forces (AGF), which had long resisted having women in their ranks. AGF relegated most WAACs to clerical duty.

In November 1942 Lieutenant General Dwight D. Eisenhower (18901969) requested WAACs for overseas service in North Africa; later WAACs would be asked to go across the Mediterranean into Italy. Overseas they performed similar duties to those they were trained for on the home front including weather forecasters, cryptographers, radio communication specialists, mechanics, and air traffic controllers. With WAACs moving overseas into combat zones, Congress passed a bill on July 3, 1943, converting the WAAC into the Women's Army Corps (WAC). The bill established the

WAC as a full member of the regular army. WACs would receive the same pay, rank, privileges, and protections as men did in the regular army.

The army needed more women in the program, so the recruitment campaigns accelerated in late 1943. However, several factors hampered recruitment. First, American women were more eager to take high-paying war industry jobs if they could find them. Also, some women were already volunteering in the other armed services. Worst of all, the program was suffering from an "image" scandal that started earlier in 1943 before the congressional bill was passed. A slander campaign swept through the army and across the country. Rumors abounded that 90 percent of WAACs were prostitutes and that 40 percent of overseas WAACs were pregnant. In some U.S. communities residents complained that large groups of WAACs stationed at local bases were overwhelming restaurants and beauty shops; these complaints most likely came from disgruntled Americans who had opposed the idea of women in the military. Also, many enlisted soldiers stationed in the United States did not want to be freed for overseas duty; their family members and friends did not want them sent overseas either. These people resented the WAACs. Because of the general public's growing negative perception of the WAACs, Congress asked the program's director, Oveta Culp Hobby, to produce statistics of pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Statistics showed that there was no truth to the rumors.

Most WACs remained in the United States, but by mid-1944 the military was sending many abroad. About 5,500 were sent to Australia and several South Pacific islands. About 400 WACs went to the China-Burma-India war region. By June 1945, 7,600 WACs were stationed throughout Europe.

Black Women in Uniform

Black women were accepted into WAAC from its beginning in the summer of 1942. About 80 percent of the black women accepted for officer training had attended college and had been working as teachers or in offices. While they were in training, black officer-candidates attended classes with white candidates and ate meals with them, too. However, almost all social activities were strictly segregated; for example, the army set up separate service clubs and beauty shops for blacks and whites. At graduation blacks were assigned to all-black auxiliary units. A black women's unit did not deploy overseas until February 1945. The 6888th Central Postal Battalion, commanded by Major (later Lieutenant Colonel) Charity Adams (19182002), first went to England and then settled in Paris, France. Working around the clock in three shifts and seven days a week, the eight hundred black women in the battalion were responsible for getting mail to all members of the U.S. military in Europe. Military personnel assigned to Europe moved constantly, so the battalion had to keep an address update card for each one.

Black women were not admitted into the U.S. Navy WAVES or the Coast Guard SPAR until November 1944. By July 1945 there were seventy-two black enlisted women and two black officers in the WAVES. Four black women had been accepted by SPAR. Black women were never accepted into the Marine Corps Women's Reserve or the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

By mid-1945, near the war's end, 150,000 women had served in either WAC or WAAC. By the end of the war, 657 WACs had been honored with medals and citations for outstanding service. Army leaders recognized the ongoing value of women in the army, and in 1946 they requested that Congress make the WAC a permanent corps. Political conservatives, long

opposed to women in the military, delayed the bill. It finally passed on June 12, 1948, and the WAC became a permanent branch of the U.S. Army.

WAVES: Women of the U.S. Navy

About fifteen thousand women served in the navy or the marines during World War I (191418)often doing clerical staff work and radio communications, but also serving as air traffic controllers and aircraft mechanicsbut since that time only a few hundred women had served in the Navy Nurse Corps. Like the army, the navy needed an ever-increasing number of personnel as World War II progressed. However, people in the navy were not eager to have women in their ranks. Nevertheless, President Roosevelt signed a bill on July 30, 1942, authorizing the navy, the Coast Guard, and the marines to recruit women. That same day, resigned to the fact that women would be a wartime necessity, the navy established its women's branch, WAVES, which stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. Navy leaders made WAVES a full part of the navy, not just an auxiliary unit. Therefore, women serving in the navy would receive the same wages, benefits, and rank as navy men did.

The navy set high standards for female applicants. To gain admittance, women had to have a college degree, or at least two years of college, and two years of professional experience. For the first time in its history the navy commissioned a female officer on August 3, 1942. Mildred McAfee (19001994), president of the prestigious Wellesley College, a women's college, was commissioned as a naval reserve lieutenant commander. As director of WAVES, McAfee immediately began recruiting women; she also set up training facilities and had uniforms designed. Ultimately about ninety thousand women became WAVES; eight thousand of them were officers. Officers trained at the Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School at Smith College and Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Enlisted WAVES attended boot camp at the U.S. Naval Training Center, located at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York. WAVES represented 2.5 percent of the navy's total strength. By mid-1943 WAVES made up the majority of personnel at many home front naval air stations. Their purpose was to handle shore duty so navy men could be freed up for sea duty.

Most WAVES took clerical positions, but thousands also did jobs previously never associated with women. All 246 shore jobs open to naval enlisted men were also open to WAVES. Navy women had the opportunity to work as air navigators, plotting out routes for planes; as air traffic controllers and aircraft mechanics; in communications, intelligence, science, and technology; and in naval law courts of the Judge Advocate General Corps. Many women remained in the navy after the war.

SPAR: U.S. Coast Guard Women's Reserve

On November 23, 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard established its women's reserve, known as SPAR. The director of SPAR was Dorothy C. Stratton, on leave from her position as dean of women at Purdue University. Stratton, a lieutenant in the WAVES, was assigned to lead the new temporary war program. The Coast Guard was assisting the navy in its duties on the home front. Stratton coined the name SPAR from the initials of the Coast Guard motto: S̱emper P̱aratusA̱lways eady. In doing

so, she saved the women from being named "Worcogs" (Women's Reserve of the Coast Guard)the only name the Coast Guard men had come up with. For the first time in its history, the Coast Guard began to enroll women into its enlisted and officer ranks. By the end of the war more than ten thousand women had volunteered to be SPARS.

SPAR officers were trained at the Naval Midshipman School in Northampton, Massachusetts, or the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. Those at the Coast Guard Academy were the first women to attend a U.S. military academy. The average SPAR officer applicant was a twenty-nine-year-old college graduate who had worked seven years in a management, teaching, or government position.

SPAR training centers for enlisted women were at Oklahoma's A & M College, which later became Oklahoma State University, in Stillwater; Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls; and the U.S. Naval Training Center at Hunter College in the Bronx, New York. By June 1943 the Biltmore Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, was converted for use as another SPAR training center. The average SPAR enlistee was a single, twenty-two-year-old high school graduate who had worked in a clerical or retail sales job.

SPAR officers and enlistees were assigned to all Coast Guard stations in the continental United States. SPAR officers held general-duty assignments, working in administrative and supervisory roles throughout the Coast Guard. They also served as communications officers, pay officers, supply barracks officers, and recruiting officers. A large percentage of enlisted SPARS served as yeomen (secretaries) and storekeepers (bookkeepers). However, others received assignments as chaplains' assistants, boatswains' mates (people who help with the ship's hull maintenance), ship cooks, vehicle drivers, pharmacists' mates, and medical assistants. A select few were parachute riggers, air control tower operators, flight instructors, and radio operators. A handful of SPARS participated in a top-secret military communications project known as Loran (Long-Range Aid to Navigation). Loran monitoring stations, located along U.S. coastlines, operated twenty-four hours a day; these stations made calculations to determine the exact location of ships and planes in transit. In 1943 an all-SPAR crew operated a Loran station at Chatham, Massachusetts.

Demobilization of SPARS began at the end of World War II in August 1945, and it was fully disbanded on June 30, 1946. SPARS left the Coast Guard knowing they had played an important role in the Allied victory.

U.S. Marine Corps Women's Reserve

Although in 1918 women in the United States did not have the right to vote, in August of that year they began enlisting in the Marine Corps. Women who enlisted at that time were known as Marinettes. Marinettes took over clerical jobs to free up marines for overseas combat in World War I (191418). Twenty-five years later, on February 13, 1943, in the midst of World War II, the Marine Corps Women's Reserve was founded. Approximately twenty-three thousand women joined the Reserve.

The Women's Reserve was headed by Ruth Cheney Streeter (18951990). The women under her command did not have a special name like the U.S. Navy WAVES or the Coast Guard SPARS; they certainly did not wish to be called Marinettes as they had been labeled in World War I. They would be known simply as marines, and they would wear uniforms of forest green, just as male marines did. The recruitment slogan for the Women's Reserve was "Free a man to fight."

Camp Lejeune in North Carolina served as boot camp to the vast majority of women marines. After boot camp they fanned out to all marine posts in the United States. By June 1944 women marines made up roughly two-thirds of the personnel at Marine Corps posts. They performed clerical jobs, working as typists, file clerks, and telephone operators; they also worked as auto and airplane mechanics, welders, painters, and motor pool drivers. Some were radio operators, parachute riggers, mapmakers, aerial photographers, or control tower operators. When male marines began coming back to the United States, the Women's Reserve staffed relocation centers, where the marines were assigned to home front duties until their discharge. At the end of the war the Women's Reserve was rapidly demobilized. Only about one thousand women marines remained in the service by July 1946.

Army Nurse Corps

The Army Nurse Corps (ANC) was founded in 1901. In late 1941, at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the ANC had less than one thousand nurses. Six months later, twelve thousand nurses were enlisted; however, the army estimated that it needed about sixty thousand. The army gave the American Red Cross the responsibility of recruiting civilian nurses, and eventually roughly 43 percent of civilian nurses volunteered to enlist.

Despite all-out recruiting efforts, the army could not fill its need for nurses quickly enough. Only single women were eligible to serve; that rule alone limited the number of potential recruits. Furthermore, there was already a nationwide shortage of nurses. This was not due to lack of interest in nursing; it had to do with cost: Most women did not have the funds to pay for several years of nursing school.

As civilian nurses began volunteering for military service, the nursing shortage in U.S. hospitals reached a crisis point. Entire hospital wings had to be shut down in many hospitals across America as a result. In response Congress passed the Bolton Act in June 1943, establishing the Cadet Nurse Corps program. The program provided for government subsidy (a grant of money) for nursing education. In return for their education, cadets had to promise to serve in essential military or civilian nursing for the duration of the war. During their last six months of training, they were assigned to home front

facilities of the army, navy, Veterans Administration, Public Health Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs, and to civilian hospitals.

The civilian nurses who volunteered for the Army Nurse Corps had no previous military experience and therefore no knowledge of army methods and protocol; they had no training in battlefield conditions either. However, in July 1943 the army finally established a training course for all new army nurses. During an intensive, four-week period at fifteen U.S. training centers, nurses learned how to follow army rules, how to cope during an attack, and how to requisition supplies.

In June 1944 the army announced that nurses would receive officers' commissions and full veterans' retirement privileges. By war's end approximately 59,000 women had served in the Army Nurse Corps. They were deployed in every war zone around the world. They served in field hospitals just behind front lines, in evacuation hospitals, and aboard medical flights. More than 200 were killed, and several hundred were prisoners of war (most in the Philippines). More than 1,600 army nurses received medals honoring their service.

Navy Nurse Corps

The Navy Nurse Corps (NNC) grew from several hundred at the start of World War II to 11,086 by 1943. Navy nurses were not deployed in combat zones until the war was almost over. Instead, male medics treated soldiers in the field. Navy nurses served on twelve U.S. hospital ships, caring for soldiers brought in from the battle fronts. They were also aboard air evacuation missions to stateside hospitals. In the United States they served in 40 hospitals, 176 dispensaries, and 6 schools for corpsmen in medic training.

Black army nurses

The army remained segregated during the war, and by war's end, when the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) had a total of about 50,000 nurses, only 479 of them were black women. The army deliberately held down the number of blacks in its ranks by setting a low quota (proportional share) of black enlistees. Only 160 black enrollees were admitted in 1943. The army argued that black nurses were not as versatile: They could only provide care for black soldiers, because they could only serve in black wards or all-black hospitals. The first black nurses were deployed to Liberia, Africa. Eventually they served in other parts of Africa, Burma, the South Pacific, and England. Under public pressure, the army ended the quota in 1944, allowing 2,000 black students into the Cadet Nurse Corps educational program. Black women were not admitted into the Navy Nurse Corps until January 1945. Only four black women served in the NNC.

Opening doors for women pilots

During the early 1930s Amelia Earhart (18971937) became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. At that time flying lessons were very expensive, so only people from wealthy families were able to take lessons. Soon, however, the opportunity to fly opened up to considerably more men and women. In 1939 the army established the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program. (At that time, all pilots were part of the army. The U.S. Air Force was not established until 1947.) The stated purpose of CPT was to acquaint young people with flight; the unstated purpose was to develop a larger pool of trained pilots, potential recruits in case of war. World War II had broken out in Europe and Asia that same year, and U.S. leaders believed that the United States might eventually be drawn into the conflict. Open to men and women in college, CPT charged only a $40 fee for flight instruction that led to a beginning pilot's license. Approximately nine thousand college men and women signed up, about one woman for every ten men.

By 1941 roughly three thousand American women had learned to fly. Some U.S. women who wanted to use their flying skills in the military went to England to work for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Jacqueline Cochran (c.19061980), a famous U.S. pilot who held numerous speed records, was instrumental in recruiting twenty-four American female pilots for ATA. They ferried new planes from the factory to the armed services and moved planes off the ground during air raids. Earlier in 1939, Cochran had approached U.S. government officials about setting up a women's ferrying service in the United States, but her idea was brushed aside.

Finding a role

Persisting in her idea for a ferrying service in the United States, Cochran attracted publicity by ferrying a plane from Montreal, Canada, to an air base in Scotland in June 1941. When Cochran returned to the United States, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945; served 193345) and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt (18841962), invited her to dinner. Mrs. Roosevelt was an avid supporter of women pilots. President Roosevelt listened to Cochran's explanation of all the activities women were carrying out in England and asked her to formulate a proposal for a similar program for the United States.

Meanwhile, another American pilot, Nancy Love (19141976), was developing a plan for highly experienced women pilots to ferry planes. The daughter of a wealthy doctor, Nancy had learned to fly as a teenager. She and her husband, Bob Love, operated an aircraft sales company in Boston, Massachusetts. Nancy Love had been ferrying planes to Canada since early 1940. From there the planes were flown to France for the war effort. She had written to the army about her plans, but her letter was ignored.

Within a few months of the U.S. entrance into World War II, it became clear that the army would need help delivering thousands of planes to air bases and ports. General Henry "Hap" Arnold (18861950), chief of the Army Air Corps, was aware of both Love's and Cochran's plans. On September 10, 1942, the army put Nancy Love's plan into action, creating a women's ferrying group called the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS). At the same time, Cochran worked with General Arnold to plan a program for training women to fly military planes. Cochran's training program was first known as the Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), or "Woofteddies."

WAFS and Woofteddies were not official branches of the army. These organizations simply worked for the army. Their pilots were paid less than male pilots in the army who did the same type of work. The women did not have army titles or army uniforms, and they were not covered under army insurance. Nevertheless, both Love and Cochran accepted these terms in order to get their women on the job or in training immediately.


Nancy Love's ferry squadron required fliers to be at least twenty-one years old. They also had to be high school graduates and have five hundred hours of flying time, twice as many hours as men doing the same job. The twenty-eight original WAFS recruits had plenty of flying time under their beltsan average of one thousand hours. When those twenty-eight arrived at New Castle Army Air Base at Wilmington, Delaware, they had to pass a physical and a flying test and then learn army rules and regulations for a couple of weeks; after that their mission would begin. The army first assigned WAFS to ferry Piper Cubs, small aircraft used for training and surveillance. Soon WAFS who were performing exceptionally well began ferrying the much larger PT-17 and PT-19, both training aircraft.

WFTD: "Woofteddies"

Jacqueline Cochran's WFTD training program was for women who knew how to fly but were not as experienced as the WAFS. The program provided training to fly military aircraft. Out of 25,000 applicants, 1,830 passed all requirements and were accepted into the program. Ultimately 1,074 successfully graduated from the program.

Cochran's first class of thirty women began training at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Eventually eighteen classes would train at Avenger for five to six months each.

Women in the Military: Postwar

The Army Nurse Corps and the Navy Nurse Corps remained active after the war. Injured soldiers still needed care, so the demand for nurses continued. Many women serving in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) remained uniformed naval personnel after the war. However, like women in the civilian workforce, military women were often forced to accept lesser roles in the postwar period, such as clerical office positions rather than pilots. Nevertheless, a foundation was in place for women's future involvement in the military. On June 12, 1948, Congress passed a bill making the WAC (Women's Army Corps) a permanent branch of the U.S. Army. By 2000, about 10 percent of all military personnel, across all military services, were women.

The Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program provides an example of women's struggle to gain broader acceptance in the military. WASPs filled an important need during the war by ferrying military planes to their destinations. However, in June 1944 Congress defeated a bill that would have attached WASPs to the Army Air Forces. Then in December of that year, as military victory appeared well in hand, Congress ended the WASP program. In the following years the women pilots of World War II started a WASP organization to stay in touch and hold reunions. Many of the pilots moved on to new careers, although some remained in the aviation field. Dora Dougherty, who ferried warplanes during the war and in May 1944 was selected to fly the new B-29 bombers, became an aircraft company official.

The air force, navy, and army did not accept women into pilot training until the 1970s. During the mid-1970s the former WASPs sought formal recognition from Congress that their flights were official military missions that ought to give them war veteran status. Their campaign for recognition proved successful, and 1977 was declared The Year of the WASP. On November 23, 1977, President Jimmy Carter (1924 ; served 197781) signed into law a bill that recognized that WASPs had flown on active duty for the U.S. armed forces during the war. All WASPs would receive honorable discharges and veterans' benefits. This recognition led to increased public awareness of the WASPs. A number of museum exhibits about their service were developed, including one at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

WASP: Women's Airforce Service Pilots

Love's pilots set up ferrying units at New Castle Army Air Base in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Long Beach, California; Dallas, Texas; and Romulus, Michigan. Each unit was located near a large aircraft manufacturing facility. Major destinations included Newark, New Jersey, where planes left for Europe; Alameda, California, for planes going to the South Pacific; and Great Falls, Montana, for planes headed to the Soviet Union for Soviet pilots. By spring 1943 the first graduates of Cochran's training program joined Love's pilots. The role of women pilots for the military was steadily expanding. In recognition of their larger roles, on August 4, 1943, the Army Air Force combined the WAFS and WFTD into a single organization, the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

By late 1943 the army was training WASPs to ferry fighters and bombers. WASPs flew seventy-seven different aircraft, including the B-17 Flying Fortress and the enormous B-29 Superfortress. WASPs flew 60 million miles and made about 12,400 deliveries before the army ended the WASP program on December 20, 1944.

Although they never became an official part of any U.S. military service, eleven hundred female pilots participated in WASP. About three hundred WASPs worked for the army during the war years, assisting in the effort to ferry thousands of newly produced aircraft from factories to military bases and ports. Others served as tow-target pilots, pulling targets behind their planes so soldiers could practice antiaircraft firing. WASPs also tested aircraft that were in for repair. WASPs flew only noncombat missions and never flew outside the continental United States; however, their participation in home front duties allowed more male pilots to perform combat duty.

For More Information


Merryman, Molly. Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Nathan, Amy. Yankee Doodle Gals: Women Pilots of World War II. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2001.

Poulos, Paula Nassen, ed. A Woman's War Too: U.S. Women in the Military in World War II. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996.

Zeinert, Karen. The Incredible Women of World War II. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1994.

Web Sites

The Army Nurse Corps. http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/wwii/72-14/72-14.htm (accessed on July 9, 2004).

Army Women's Museum, Fort Lee, Virginia. http://www.awm.lee.army.mil (accessed on July 9, 2004).

The Coast Guard and the Women's Reserve in World War II. http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-cp/history/h_wmnres.html (accessed on July 9, 2004).

Fly Girls. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/flygirls.htm (accessed on July 9, 2004).

WASP on the Web. http://www.wasp-wwii.org/wasp/home.htm (accessed on July 9, 2004).

The WASP WWII Museum. http://www.waspwwii.org/museum/home.htm (accessed on July 9, 2004).

The Women's Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service. http://www.army.mil/cmh-pg/brochures/wac/wac.htm (accessed on July 9, 2004).

Women of the WAVES. http://www.womenofthewaves.com (accessed on July 9, 2004).

World War II Era WAVES. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/prs-tpic/females/waveww2.htm (accessed on July 9, 2004).

Women in Military Service

views updated May 18 2018


WOMEN IN MILITARY SERVICE. Women have served in the U.S. military since the revolutionary war. Some 20,000 women were part of the semiofficial auxiliary Women in the Army during that war. Subjected to military discipline, they received half the pay of men, half the rations, and did not wear uniforms. They made and repaired the men's uniforms and served as cooks and nurses. Their chief combat role was to carry water to the artillery.

The Civil War and Spanish-American War

More than 10,000 women served as nurses and hospital administrators during the Civil War, including African Americans. Soon after the war began, the secretary of war appointed Dorothea Lynde Dix as superintendent of women nurses for the Union army. During the war she oversaw the work of 6,000 women. Clara Barton, another prominent volunteer nurse during the war, helped establish the American Red Cross. Some women joined units consisting of male officers and female volunteers to protect themselves and their property during the war. Some 400 fought for the Union army disguised as men, while 250 fought for the Confederacy. Nearly 1,500 women served as nurse volunteers during the Spanish-American War in 1898. At least sixteen died of typhoid or yellow fever. The war demonstrated the need for a permanent and professional nurse corps. As a result, the army surgeon general established the Nurse Corps Division in August 1898. On 5 February 1901, the Nurse Corps became a permanent part of the army. The navy followed suit in 1908.

World War I and World War II

During World War I, the navy created the Women's Reserve to release men for combat duty. Nearly 11,500 women served as clerk typists and administrators in the

navy and marines. Of the 21,000 army nurses on active duty during World War I, about 10,000 served overseas. The army also brought 350 women to France to serve as bilingual communications specialists. Although they wore uniforms and were under military discipline they remained technically civilians. More than 33,000 women served during World War I, the majority with the Army Nurse Corps, and 400 died. Many were killed by the influenza epidemic that swept Europe, including thirty-six nurses. The army awarded three nurses the Distinguished Service Cross (its second highest combat award) and twenty-three the Distinguished Service Medal (the highest noncombat award). The navy awarded three nurses the Navy Cross (its second highest combat award) for their role in fighting the influenza epidemic. The governments of France and Great Britain decorated another 100 nurses. Although the Red Cross certified more than 1,800 African American nurses to serve during the war, the army did not assign any to active duty until after the armistice. Those that were called up were housed in segregated quarters and worked in an integrated environment.

World War II was the watershed for women in the military. The Army's Women's Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established in May 1942, while in July, the navy began recruiting women into Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). In September, the Women

Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), a quasi-military organization affiliated with the Army Air Forces, was organized, and in November, the Coast Guard formed the Women's Coast Guard Reserve (SPAR). The Marine Corps was the last to admit women, establishing the Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR) in February 1943. On 1 July, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed new legislation, and the WAAC dropped its auxiliary status, becoming the Women's Army Corps (WAC). Almost 400,000 women served in uniform during the war. This included more than 150,550 WACs, 100,000 WAVEs, 76,000 army nurses, 23,000 female marines, 13,000 SPARs, and nearly 1,100 WASPs. Some 7,000 African American WACs and nurses also served, but in segregated units. Restricted from going overseas, they faced daily discrimination. African Americans were not accepted into the navy or Coast Guard until November 1944. Two hundred Puerto Rican women also served as WACs during the war. At their peak strength, some 271,000 women were in uniform, including 100,000 WACs.

Although the combat exclusion law was in effect, women were shot at, killed, wounded, and taken prisoner; 432 American military women were killed during World War II, including 201 army nurses, 16 as a result of enemy action. Another 88 were taken prisoner of war, all but one in the Pacific theater. More than 1,600 nurses were decorated for bravery under fire and meritorious service. Thirty-eight WASPs were killed while towing targets or ferrying or testing planes. The women who served were motivated by patriotism, religion, and a chance for adventure.

Despite their large numbers and immense contributions, only a handful of women were allowed to remain in the military after World War II, although with the Army-Navy-Nurse Act of 1947 and the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, the women's services became a permanent, integral part of the U.S. military. The Women's Armed Services Integration Act, however, restricted the number of women to 2 percent of the total force and barred them from serving aboard navy combat vessels and from duty in combat aircraft. It also capped their rank at colonel with only one per service. Because the Coast Guard was not included in the bill, a few SPARs remained in the Women's Coast Guard Reserve. In 1949, the air force organized the Air Force Nurse Corps and Air Force Women's Medical Specialist Corps.

The Korean and Vietnam Wars

Women continued to make major strides in the military between World War II and the Korean War. In 1950, President Harry Truman appointed Anna Rosenberg the assistant secretary of defense for manpower and personnel in 1950. She served in that position until 1953. The beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 saw a small initial surge in the number of women in the military. By June 1951, there were 28,000 women serving in the military. The services, however, did not attempt to recruit women because there was a large pool of draft-eligible males. So,

the increase in numbers was neither significant nor long term. In 1951, Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall appointed the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services (DACOWITS), consisting of fifty prominent women educators, civic leaders, and business and professional women, to assist the defense establishment in recruiting women for the armed services. When the cease-fire was signed on 27 July 1953, the Pentagon began a phase out, reducing the number of Americans in uniform, including women. In all, 120,000 women served during the Korean War.

Women volunteered in large numbers during the Vietnam War, and as the war progressed, they were assigned to wartime operational commands, serving in nontraditional fields such as intelligence, communications, and transportation. About 7,000 served and 7 were killed. In 1967, Congress removed the 2 percent ceiling on number and grade limitations and women became eligible for appointment to flag and general officer rank. In 1971, Colonel Jean Holm was selected as the first air force woman general, and the air force became the first service to allow pregnant women to remain in the service. It also changed recruiting rules to allow the enlistment of women with children. The other services soon followed suit. In 1973, the first women naval aviators received their wings, and three years later the first women army aviators received theirs. In 1976, the service academies began admitting women. The following year the first women air force pilots received their wings. In 1978, the Coast Guard removed all assignment restrictions based on gender.

From Grenada to the Persian Gulf and Beyond

The participation of women in military operations continued to grow during the military actions that followed Vietnam, and by the 1980s there were enough air force women flying to allow the formation of all-female crews. Some 170 women took part in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, including air force women in air transport crews. Later that year, 7 women were among the crews of the KC-135 tankers that refueled the F-111s that raided Libya. About 770 took part in Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989. Women manned air force transport and refueling aircraft, a woman MP (Military Police) commanded troops in a firefight with Panamanian troops, and women army aviators came under fire for the first time. Three were awarded the Air Medal. Almost 41,000 women deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in 1990– 1991. Thirteen were killed, including 5 army women, and 21 were wounded as the result of SCUD missile attacks, helicopter crashes, or mines. Two were taken prisoner. Women in the Persian Gulf War endured the same hardships as men, served for the same principles, and played a key role in the war's successful outcome.

In 1991, Congress repealed the combat exclusion law, leaving policies pertaining to women to the secretary of defense. In 1993, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin moved to eliminate many of the remaining restrictions on military women. He ordered all the services to open combat aviation to women, directed the navy to draft legislation to repeal the combat ship exclusion, and directed the army and Marine Corps to study opening new assignments to women. That same year, Sheila E. Widnall became the first woman secretary of the air force. In 1994, more than 1,000 women took part in military operations in Somalia. Four years later more than 1,200 women were deployed to Haiti for peacekeeping duties and the first Marine Corps women aviators received their wings. From 1995 to 2002, more than 5,000 women had served in peace-keeping operations in Bosnia.

A significant proportion of all U.S. military women are African American. Indeed, African Americans account for a considerably higher percentage of military women than of military men (30 percent versus 17 percent). In 2002, the army had the highest proportion of African American women (36 percent of female personnel) and the air force had the lowest (almost 25 percent). Hispanic women accounted for a lower population of the armed forces (10 percent) than of the general population (11 percent). The marines had the highest representation of Hispanic women (15 percent of its women), while the air force had the lowest (7 percent). Finally, almost 15 percent of military women were officers, the same ratio of officers to enlisted personnel among military men.


Feller, Lt. Col. Carolyn M., and Maj. Debra R. Cox. Highlights in the History of the Army Nurse Corps. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2000.

Friedl, Vicki L. Women in the United States Military, 1901–1995: A Research Guide and Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.

Holm, Jeanne. Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1995.

Morden, Bettie J. The Women's Army Corps, 1945–1978. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1990.

Poulos, Paula Nassen, ed. A Woman's War Too: U.S. Women in the Military in World War II. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996.

Putney, Martha S., When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1992.

Seeley, Charlotte Palmer, Virginia C. Purdy, and Robert Gruber. American Women and the U.S. Armed Forces: A Guide to the Records of Military Agencies in the National Archives Relating to American Women. Washington, D.C: National Archives and Records Administration, 2000.

Treadwell, Mattie E. United States Army in World War II: The Women's Army Corps. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1991.

Women's Research and Education Institute. Women in the Military: Where They Stand. Washington, D.C.: Women's Research and Education Institute, January 1998.


See alsoDiscrimination: Sex ; Gender and Gender Roles andvol. 9:Hobby's Army .

Women in the Military

views updated May 23 2018

Women in the Military. The role of women in the U.S. military has changed significantly over the last 200 years, but the greatest change has come since the initiation of the All‐Volunteer Force in 1973. Throughout American history, the expansion of women's roles has come about when the military faced a shortage of male recruits, usually in times of war. Historically, women's participation has occurred mainly in medical and administrative support positions, thus releasing male soldiers from desk jobs to fight in combat. However, the excellent performance of women in support roles in combat zones during the 1980s and 1990s spurred extensive public debates about opening combat positions to women and about women's duties and rights as citizens. This debate focused attention specifically on the contribution women soldiers have made to military readiness and efficiency, rather than simply on the older notion that a woman's military role was to free up men to fight.

From the Revolutionary War to the present day, women have served in the armed forces. Until World War I, however, their roles—as laundresses or nurses, for example—were generally informal and seldom institutionalized. A handful of women disguised themselves as men and fought alongside male soldiers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In World War I, 21,000 women served in the U.S. Army and Navy Nurse Corps, and another 13,000 volunteered for clerical positions in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. All except the nurses held a quasi‐military status and were discharged from active duty immediately after the war ended. At the outbreak of World War II, the shortage of military personnel led to the first large‐scale recruitment of women and the formation of the women's auxiliary military branches. During that war, more than 350,000 women served primarily in the medical and administrative fields, although the services also employed women as pilots, mechanics, truck drivers, gunnery instructors, and electricians. Women were not used in combat roles, but rather to fill support positions and thus release male soldiers for combat.

The end of World War II brought the demobilization of large numbers of servicemen and ‐women and a corresponding diminution in women's roles. In 1948, Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which provided the first ever legal basis for and legal limits to a permanent role for women in the military. Allowing for women to hold full military rank and privilege, the 1948 act also placed caps on women's enlistment and promotion, and excluded them from combat service. Women were not to exceed 2 percent of active duty personnel in each service and could not be promoted beyond lieutenant‐colonel or commander. The combat exclusion requirement remained more or less in effect into the late 1990s (aside from exceptions in the early 1990s for female pilots), but the enlistment and promotion ceilings were repealed in 1967, when the Department of Defense again needed to ease a recruitment deficit at the height of the unpopular Vietnam War. Coinciding with the expanding role of women in the labor force and calls for equal rights more broadly, women's participation in the services grew gradually over the next few years (in 1971, 1.6% of active duty personnel were women; in 1976, 5%), and the first women were promoted to general officers in 1970.

When the end of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia resulted in the elimination of the draft in 1973 and the initiation of the All‐Volunteer Force, the military began planning how to recruit more women to compensate for expected shortages of qualified male volunteers. Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (1972), as well as a number of court rulings in favor of equal treatment across gender lines in the services, led to changes in personnel policies that allowed women to command units composed of both men and women; eliminated rules that required the automatic discharge of pregnant women soldiers; ended segregated training of male and female recruits; and equalized dependents' entitlements for married servicewomen and servicemen. In 1973, the first women naval aviators earned their wings (followed by women pilots in the army in 1974 and air force in 1977). In 1976, the first women cadets were admitted to service academies; in 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a new law allowing navy women to be assigned to sea duty aboard noncombat ships.

During the 1990s, women participated in all major military deployments of U.S. forces, and some combat specialties opened up to them. In 1989, 800 women soldiers served among the 18,400 U.S. troops sent to Panama for Operation Just Cause. From August 1990 to February 1991, 41,000 military women were deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In the Persian Gulf War, women constituted 7 percent of all U.S. military personnel deployed; 13 U.S. women were among the 375 U.S. soldiers who died, and 2 women were captured and held as prisoners of war. In April 1993, Air Force 1st Lt. Jeannie Flynn was the first woman to complete a combat training course to fly advanced fighter aircraft.

By 1996, 197,693 women were serving in the armed forces, constituting 13.4 percent of all active duty personnel. At the junior officer levels, women were represented relatively proportional to their numbers in the services. However, there remained a “glass ceiling” inhibiting promotion at the senior levels. In 1996, no women held three‐ or four‐star rank, and only 2 of the 277 two‐star officers and 14 of the 430 one‐star officers were women.

Media coverage in the 1990s led to increased public debate about the role of women in the armed forces. In arguing for equal treatment of all individuals in the military, some senior women military officers and liberal feminists, including Congresswoman Pat Schroeder of the Armed Services Committee, have pressed for opening combat roles to women as part of a larger program to give women full citizenship rights and responsibilities. Furthermore, women's advocates note that combat exclusion reinforces the glass ceiling that blocks promotion to the most senior ranks in a system that favors combat experience over support roles as a condition for advancement. Those opposing women's assignment to combat roles argue that combat effectiveness will be compromised because men will be more likely to defend their female colleagues than to destroy the enemy; that unit cohesion might be undercut by tensions between the sexes; and that the problem of pregnancy makes women soldiers not deployable in times of emergency. Some observers have suggested that the line between combat and noncombat roles will become increasingly arbitrary as support functions put women in the line of fire (as in the Persian Gulf) and as the armed forces prepare to fight noninfantry, high‐technology wars.

The issue of sexual harassment has caught public attention in recent years. Starting with the 1991 Tailhook Conference, at which at least 83 women were assaulted by drunken male navy fighter pilots, harassment scandals have rocked the services. In 1997, a number of female soldiers at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland alleged that their army drill instructors harassed them during their training. Subsequently, a sexual harassment hotline set up to field anonymous calls from women in the armed forces yielded hundreds of reports of abuse of rank and privilege by senior male noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers. The sexual harassment issue remains controversial as the armed forces attempt to establish fair procedures to adjudicate complaints in organizational environments hostile to change.
[See also Families, Military; Gender: Female Identity and the Military; Gender and War; SPARS; WAC; WAVES.]


Jeanne Holm , Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, 1982; rev. ed. 1992.
Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces , Report to the President, 1992.
Martin Binkin , Who Will Fight the Next War? The Changing Face of the American Military, 1993.
Ruth H. Howes and Michael R. Stevenson, eds., Women and the Use of Military Force, 1993.
Laura Miller , Feminism and the Exclusion of Army Women from Combat, 1995.
Richard D. Fisher , et al., Keeping America Safe and Strong: Keeping the Armed Forces Focused on the Military Mission, 1996.
Office of the Secretary of Defense , Department of Defense Selected Manpower Statistics, Fiscal Year 1996, 1996.

Mary P. Callahan

About this article

Women in Military Service

All Sources -
Updated Aug 08 2016 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic


Women in Military Service