Women in the War Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Although military service traditionally had been limited to men, the personnel demands of World War II spurred the U.S. military leadership to accept women in significant numbers. By 1943, women’s military branches had been established in all the services. A total of 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Although women were not permitted to serve in combat, many served with distinction, and some were counted among American war casualties. Women’s military service during the war altered perceptions about the capabilities of female soldiers and helped bring some specific women’s issues to the fore.

World War II provided American women with their first major opportunity to serve their country in a military capacity, paving the way for expanded roles for women in succeeding decades.

Although military service traditionally had been limited to men, the personnel demands of World War II spurred the U.S. military leadership to accept women in significant numbers. By 1943, women’s military branches had been established in all the services. A total of 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II. Although women were not permitted to serve in combat, many served with distinction, and some were counted among American war casualties. Women’s military service during the war altered perceptions about the capabilities of female soldiers and helped bring some specific women’s issues to the fore.

The Women’s Corps

The impetus for women’s corps in the United States began with the extension of the vote to women in 1920. Fearing extreme pacifism among the new female voters, the War Department (the forerunner of the Department of Defense) established a director of women’s relations, whose job was to bolster support for the U.S. military among women’s groups. Anita Phipps held the position throughout the 1920’s, during which time she developed a plan to create a women’s corps within the Army. The War Department was not amenable, and it was not until World War II was underway, and with the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, that such a corps was finally authorized. Edith Nourse Rogers, a member of Congress and a long-time advocate of women’s military service, introduced a bill in 1941 to create a women’s Army auxiliary corps. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which brought the United States into the war, virtually ensured passage of the bill.

In 1942, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was established. The following year, its auxiliary status was dropped, and it was placed under the direction of Oveta Culp Hobby. Members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) were uniformed servicewomen with full military status. The Navy established a women’s reserve and placed as its head Mildred McAfee, the president of Wellesley College; members of the Navy women’s reserve would be known as Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). The Coast Guard also established a women’s reserve, based on the acronym SPAR, from the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus–Always Ready.” The Marine Corps was less eager to take on women, but in 1943 it finally established a reserve for women, headed by Ruth Cheney Streeter; members of the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve were not given an official acronym, and thus were simply “marines.”

Although the women’s corps represented a major advancement in the removal of barriers to women’s service, most jobs within the corps were clerical and secretarial. In effect, women in the military were taking office jobs from men, who thus were released to serve in combat assignments. Many women also were placed in nursing jobs or other traditional occupations for women.

The most dramatic exception to the tendency of relegating women to office jobs were Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs). A severe shortage of pilots during the war spurred the Air Force to use female pilots in noncombat assignments. Between 1942 and 1944, more than a thousand women ferried warplanes, tested aircraft, and towed practice targets. By all accounts, these women performed exceptionally. Although never involved in battle, thirty-eight WASPs died in the line of duty. The leader of the WASPs, Jacqueline Cochran, resisted integration of her unit with the Women’s Army Corps, and thus her pilots retained civilian status. In an example of the changing attitudes that followed the military performance of women during the war, military status was retroactively granted to the WASPs in 1977.

World War II was the first conflict in which women were encouraged to enlist in the military services in large numbers. (National Archives)

As during World War I, thousands of American women–such as this aircraft riveter–assisted the war cause by working in armament factories. (National Archives)

Impact

The employment of women in the U.S. military during World War II was largely driven by need. This situation was not unique to the United States; other countries, notably Great Britain, Japan, and the Soviet Union, pressed women into more integral military assignments. Although women’s military assignments in the United States during the war generally were limited to support roles, the very entrance of women into military service had far-reaching effects on the military and society in general.

The widespread inclusion of women forced a number of unspoken gender issues. In many ways, the U.S. military leadership–including its female officers–continued to impose a traditional cultural value system on women, expecting chastity, temperance, and otherwise “ladylike” language and behavior. Meanwhile, women in the military often were subjected to sexual harassment and intimidation. Double standards were evident throughout the armed forces. Pregnancy was frowned on and, if it occurred outside of wedlock, could lead to various official sanctions. At the same time, abortion was discouraged, and an illegal abortion could lead to a dishonorable discharge.

Although the military contributions of women during the war were significant and recognized within the military leadership and society, some people disapproved of, and even actively opposed, women serving in military roles. Among the complaints were that women “feminized” the military, that military service “masculinized” women, and that the presence of women caused morale problems. Some people believed that any woman who would volunteer to serve in the military was a lesbian. These and similar charges reached a peak in a slander campaign against the WAC in late 1943 and early 1944. Charges (later to be deemed unfounded) surfaced that women’s official role in the military was primarily to improve troop morale, that the War Department was providing them with contraceptives, and that a high rate of lesbianism existed among female personnel. Many of these stories were traced to servicemen who resented the presence of women in the military.

The friction, double standards, and clashing social conventions caused by the introduction of women into the military were addressed in a variety of ways, including compromises on an individual basis and some policy changes in the services. In the long run, these incidents created an awareness that various social customs were biased and outmoded, eventually leading to their demise. Most directly, women’s military service during World War II caused changes in the military itself. Women had proved that they have the strength, courage, and commitment to make tremendous sacrifices in defense of their country, and therefore that the military excluded their contributions to its own detriment. Indeed, by 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt was prepared to draft women as nurses, but the war ended before such an action could take place. These developments started a long process of accepting women into all areas of military service. In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which permanently opened all branches to women. For the next several decades, advancements in women’s military service would occur until women were even accepted in some combat roles.

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