Women Enter the Military

"WAC Life," 1945 War Department Pamphlet

Once women had been fully established in the military during WWII, the U.S. War Department released a pamphlet titled "WAC Life," which outlined the roles and duties of female officers in the Women's Army Corps during the war.

The greatest need for women in the military services was to fill the necessary roles and jobs that could allow more men to enter the battlefield.  Once the United States had entered World War II, the opportunities for women to aid the military had grown.  By the end of 1943, the WAC, WAVES, SPARS, WASP, and the Marine Corps Women's Reserve had been established, each of them providing women with the opportunity to support their country, aid in the war effort, and most importantly, establish an identity for women in the military.  By the end of the summer of 1942, 110,000 women had lined up and applied at recruiting offices.  Although this would seem like a success to many, the war effort was still met with lower recruitment numbers than expected; women had new financial responsibilities in World War II and many couldn’t afford to enlist.  The government and military saw the value of women working in defense plants and agriculture, too – in fact, a woman couldn’t legally leave her war industry job to join the military without a release form from her employer.  Despite these obstacles, women weren’t deterred, and by the end of the war nearly 350,000 women had entered and served in the military.

"WAACs Drop an 'A'," Yank Magazine, 1943

In 1943, the WAAC dropped the "auxiliary" part of the acronym to become the Women's Army Corps, which left women with the decision of either becoming civilian or fully entering the military.

WAC

When the WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) was established on May 15th, 1942, it was initially to identify incoming enemy planes.  However, by the end of World War II, its name had become WAC (Women’s Army Corps) and it had assumed many more functions, signifying that the era of the volunteer was beginning to end and the need for women was significant in the Army.

Over the course of the war, nearly 150,000 had served.  Directed by Ovetta Culp Hobby, she assured that the (then) WAAC had the proper training for auxiliary jobs in the Army so that more men could be sent to the battlefield.  When applications opened for women to apply for officer positions, nearly 35,000 women applied for 1,000 available positions.  In order to increase recruitment numbers, the WAC eventually extended enlistment to volunteers of at least 21 years of age and a high school diploma, which drastically increased the military contributions made by women during the war.  By the end of the war, the WAC had become the most advertised, publicized, and popularized women's reserve in the country.

The jobs performed by women in the WAC began as clerks, stenographers, and drivers, eventually shifting into more physical and professional roles such as repairmen, radio operators, parachute riggers, electricians, and laboratory technicians.   By 1945, women had become an integral part of the U.S. Army, ensuring success and support.

WAVES

The WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), established on July 30th, 1942, was the Navy’s women's reserve, and it had much higher recruitment standards than the WAC – where the WAC only accepted women older than 21, the WAVES required that their recruits have a minimum of two years of college experience paired with two years of professional experience applicable to the Navy.  Although this was the most elitist group out of the auxiliary services, its recruitment quota filled up the quickest.

Led by Mildred McAfee, who eventually reached the rank of Captain by the end of WWII, the WAVES reached nearly 90,000 enlisted women.  With over 900 locations, the only overseas location that women were allotted to serve was Hawaii, working in jobs such as clerical work, medicine, and engineering.  Despite its success, both Congress and the Navy were hesitant to allow women into the Navy, but the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt helped sway them. The accomplishments of the WAVES was a notable reason for securing women permanently in the Navy in 1948.

SPARS

SPARS, the Coast Guard women's auxiliary, was established on November 22nd, 1942.  The role of these women was to expedite the process of getting men out to sea by taking up the jobs that men had been working on the shorelines.  As with its counterparts, SPARS could not serve outside of the country, and more misogynistically, could not issue orders to any servicemen. Along with its misogynistic tendencies, the Coast Guard brought racial tensions upon SPARS as well.  Initially, only white women were allowed to serve, and it wasn't until later into the war that a mere five black women were accepted.

SPARS was one of the later reserves to be established in the military, and to initially avoid setting up any civilian recruitment tactics, their first enlistees and officers were women from the WAVES who agreed to be discharged and join the Coast Guard.  In fact, its director, Dorothy C. Stratton, was a former WAVES officer before joining SPARS.  It eventually opened itself up to civilian enlistees, but like the WAVES, required that women be college graduates and have professional experience to bring with them into the military.  By the end of the war, SPARS reached roughly 11,000 officers and enlistees.

WASP

The WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) had no trouble in their recruitment efforts: 25,000 women filed applications when only 1,830 could serve. Women’s desires to learn to fly planes was at an all-time high in World War II.  At the same time that WASP was being established, Nancy Harkman Love created the WAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron), which ferried various goods across the country.  By August 5th, 1943, the WAF was absorbed into the WASPs, which was led by Jacqueline Cochran. 

The distinct difference that separated the WASPs from other auxiliary groups is that it was a solely civilian group – they were civilian volunteers who worked under military command.  So male pilots could serve in combat, women took on the role of flying planes within the United States, transferring materials and goods from production plants to military bases.  It wasn’t until the Integration Act of 1977, after the establishment of the US Air Force, that women could serve.

"Toughening Up Women Marines," New York Times, 1943

The New York Times did a spread in 1943 describing the conditions of training for women in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve.

Marine Corps Women's Reserve

Unlike its counterparts, the Marine Corps Women's Reserve decided to forgo adopting an analogy for its women's reserves. It was established on July 30th, 1942 and, as with the other auxiliary sectors, the women of the Marine Corps took on the roles that would allow men to enter combat. They were assigned over 200 different jobs, some of them more uniquely being a control tower operator, a cryptographer, a photographer, and an aerial gunnery instructor, to name a few.  Over 20,000 women marines served during World War II, with Ruth Chenney Streeter as its first director.