American women in World War II

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Rosie the Riveter (Westinghouse poster, 1942. Image became iconic in 1970s.
Air Evacuation Nurse Verona Savinski.

American women in World War II became involved in many tasks they rarely had before; as the war involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale, the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. Their services were recruited through a variety of methods, including posters and other print advertising, as well as popular songs. Among the most iconic images were those depicting "Rosie the Riveter", a woman factory laborer performing what was previously considered man's work.[1]

With this added skill base channelled to paid employment opportunities, the presence of women in the American workforce continued to expand from what had occurred during World War I. Many sought and secured jobs in the war industry, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and munitions or other weaponry. Others drove trucks or provided other logistical support for soldiers. Still others worked on farms. Women also enlisted in significantly greater numbers in the military and as nurses serving on the front lines.

During World War II, approximately 400,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces. As many as 543 died in war-related incidents, including 16 from enemy fire - even though U.S. political and military leaders had decided not to use women in combat because they feared public opinion. By 1948, however, women were finally recognized as a permanent part of the U.S. armed forces with the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

Civilians aiding the military[edit]

WASP pilots ferried warplanes from factories to U.S. bases.

The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) were civilians who flew stateside missions, chiefly ferrying planes from one location to another when male pilots were needed for combat roles. In September 1942, General Henry H. Arnold agreed to form two units of women who would help fly aircraft in the United States. They were The Women's Auxiliary Ferry Squadron (WAFS), led by Nancy Harkness Love, and The Women's Flying Training Detachment (WFTD), led by Jacqueline Cochran. These two groups merged in 1943 to create (WASP). More than 1,074 of these skilled pilots became the first women to fly American military aircraft, taking off from airfields at 126 bases across the United States to logistically relocate fifty percent of the combat aircraft during the war. The WASP was disbanded in 1944, when returning combat pilots took over ferrying tasks; 38 WASPS died in accidents.[2][3] The WASP was granted veteran status in 1977, and given the Congressional Gold Medal in 2009.[4][5]

Women also served as spies for the Office of Strategic Services, a United States intelligence agency. Of the 4,500 women employed by the OSS as clerks, operations agents, codebreakers, and undercover agents (out of the 13,000 people employed in total by the OSS), 1,500 worked overseas. One, Portland, Oregon's Claire Phillips, an untrained spy, operated a clandestine ring under the cover of Club Tsubaki, a cabaret popular with Japanese officers stationed in Manila. Earning the nickname "high-pockets" because she smuggled information in her brassiere, she also funnelled food, medicine and other supplies to prisoners in the Philippines. Another, Elizabeth Thorpe Pack, used seduction to extract information, and was best known for helping to acquire the first Enigma machine from Polish intelligence and for securing Italian and Vichy French codebooks. Virginia Hall, who was labeled by the Gestapo as "the most dangerous of all alien spies", disguised herself as a milkmaid in France in order to spy on German forces.[6][7][8]

In 2017, Sadie O. Horton, who spent World War II working aboard a U.S. Merchant Marine barge, posthumously received official veteran’s status for her wartime service, becoming the first recorded female Merchant Marine veteran of World War II.[9]

Home front[edit]

Female factory workers in 1942, Long Beach, California.

U.S. women also performed many kinds of non-military service in organizations such as the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations (USO). Nineteen million American women filled out the home front labor force, not only as "Rosie the Riveters" in war factory jobs, but in transportation, agricultural, and office work of every variety. Women joined the federal government in massive numbers during World War II. Nearly a million "government girls" were recruited for war work. In addition, women volunteers aided the war effort by planting victory gardens, canning produce, selling war bonds, donating blood, salvaging needed commodities and sending care packages.

By the end of World War I, twenty-four percent of workers in aviation plants, mainly located along the coasts of the United States were women, and yet this percentage was easily surpassed by the beginning of World War II.[10] Mary Anderson, director of the Women’s Bureau, reported in January 1942 that about 2,800,000 women “are now engaged in war work, and that their numbers are expected to double by the end of this year.”[11]

The skills women had acquired through their daily chores proved to be very useful in helping them acquire new skill sets towards the war effort. Since men that usually did certain jobs were out at war, women tried to replace them. For example, the pop culture phenomenon of "Rosie the Riveter" made riveting one of the most widely known jobs. Experts speculate women were so successful at riveting because it so closely resembled sewing (assembling and seaming together a garment).[12] However, riveting was only one of many jobs that women were learning and mastering as the aviation industry was developing. As Glenn Martin, a co-founder of Martin Marietta, told a reporter: “we have women helping design our planes in the Engineering Departments, building them on the production line, [and] operating almost every conceivable type of machinery, from rivet guns to giant stamp presses”.[13]

Female welders in Pascagoula, Mississippi, 1943

It is true that some women chose more traditional female jobs such as sewing aircraft upholstery or painting radium on tiny measurements so that pilots could see the instrument panel in the dark. And yet many others, maybe more adventurous, chose to run massive hydraulic presses that cut metal parts while others used cranes to move bulky plane parts from one end of the factory to the other. They even had women inspectors to ensure any necessary adjustments were made before the planes were flown out to war often by female pilots. The majority of the planes they built were either large bombers or small fighters.[14]

Although at first, most Americans were reluctant to allow women into traditional male jobs, women proved that they could not only do the job but in some instances they did it better than their male counterparts. For example, women in general paid more attention to detail as the foreman of California Consolidated Aircraft once told the Saturday Evening Post, “Nothing gets by them unless it’s right”.[15] The United States Department of Labor even states that when examining the number of holes drilled per day in the aircraft manufacturing industry, a man drilled 650 holes per day while a woman drilled 1,000 holes per day.[16]

Two years after Pearl Harbor, there were some 475,000 women working in aircraft factories - which, by comparison, was almost five times as many as ever joined the Women's Army Corps.[14]

Other industries that women entered were the metal industry, steel industry, shipbuilding industry, and automobile industry.[17] Women also worked in plants where bombs, weaponry, and aircraft were made.[18]

In the military[edit]

Maj. Charity E. Adams and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell inspect the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion while stationed in England, February 15, 1945 (U.S. Department of Defense).

After the Coast Guard hired its first group of civilian women to serve in secretarial and clerical positions in 1941, it then established a Women's Reserve known as the SPARs (after the motto Semper Paratus - Always Ready) in 1942. YN3 Dorothy Tuttle became the first SPAR enlistee when she enlisted in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve on December 7, 1942. LCDR Dorothy Stratton transferred from the Navy to serve as the director of the SPARs. The first five African-American women entered the SPARs in 1945: Olivia Hooker, D. Winifred Byrd, Julia Mosley, Yvonne Cumberbatch, and Aileen Cooke. Also in 1945, SPAR Marjorie Bell Stewart was awarded the Silver Lifesaving Medal by CAPT Dorothy Stratton, becoming the first SPAR to receive the award. SPARs were assigned stateside and served as storekeepers, clerks, photographers, pharmacist's mates, cooks, and in numerous other jobs during World War II. More than 11,000 SPARs served during World War II.[19]

The Army established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942, a noteworthy year because WAACs served overseas in North Africa, and because Charity Adams Earley also became the WAAC's first African-American female commissioned officer that year.[20] The organization never accomplished its goal of making available to "the national defense the knowledge, skill, and special training of the women of the nation";[21] however, as a result, the WAAC was converted to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. Recognized as an official part of the regular army, more than 150,000 women served as WACs during the war with thousands were sent to the European and Pacific theaters. In 1944, WACs landed in Normandy after D-Day and served in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines in the Pacific. In 1945, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (the only all African-American, all-female battalion during World War II) worked in England and France, making them the first black female battalion to travel overseas. Commanded by Major Early, the battalion was composed of 30 officers and 800 enlisted women.[22][23] At the time, African-American recruitment was limited to 10 percent for the WAAC/WAC—matching the demographics of the U.S. population with a total of 6,520 African-American women enrolled for duty. Enlisted basic training was segregated for living, dining and training, but while living quarters remained segregated at officer training and specialist schools, dining and training facilities there were integrated.[23]

Members of the Women's Army Corps wait to board a ship for Europe in May 1945

In 1942, Carmen Contreras-Bozak, became the first Hispanic to join the WAAC, serving in Algiers under General Dwight D. Eisenhower. She was also the first of approximately 200 Puerto Rican women who would serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.[24]

The Women's Army Corps (WAC) also recruited 50 Japanese-American and Chinese-American women and sent them to the Military Intelligence Service Language School at Fort Snelling, Minnesota, for training as military translators. Of these women, 21 were assigned to the Pacific Military Intelligence Research Section at Camp Ritchie, Maryland, where they worked with captured Japanese documents, extracting information pertaining to military plans, as well as political and economic information that impacted Japan's ability to conduct the war. Other WAC translators were assigned jobs helping the U.S. Army interface with the United States' Chinese allies. In 1943, the Women's Army Corps recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the Army Air Forces as "Air WACs". The Army lowered the height and weight requirements for the women of this particular unit, referred to as the "Madame Chiang Kai-Shek Air WAC unit". The first two women to enlist in the unit were Hazel (Toy) Nakashima and Jit Wong, both of California. Air WACs served in a large variety of jobs, including aerial photo interpretation, air traffic control, and weather forecasting.[25] Susan Ahn Cuddy became the first Asian-American woman to join the U.S. Navy, in 1942.[26] The Navy however, refused to accept Japanese-American women throughout World War II.[25]

Three Marine Corps reservists at Camp Lejeune, N.C. (from left): Minnie Spotted Wolf (Blackfoot), Celia Mix (Potawatomi) and Viola Eastman (Chippewa), October 16, 1943 (U.S. Marine Corps, American Indian Select List.

In 1943, the Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Women's Reserve. The first female officer of the United States Marine Corps was also commissioned that year with the first female detachment of marines sent to duty in Hawaii in 1945. The first director of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve was Mrs. Ruth Cheney Streeter from Morristown, New Jersey. Captain Anne Lentz was its first commissioned officer and Private Lucille McClarren its first enlisted woman. Both joined in 1943, as did Minnie Spotted-Wolf, the first Native American woman to enlist in the United States Marines.[27] Many of these Marines served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics and drivers, as well as in other positions. By the end of World War II, 85 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to the Corps' U.S. headquarters were women.

American women also took part in assuming the defense of the home front. Apart from the number of women who served in the federal military, a number of women joined the various state guards, organized by individual U.S. states and partially supplied by the War Department, to replace the federally-deployed National Guard. In September 1942, the Idaho State Guard became the first state-level military organization in the United States to induct women into its command structure when Governor Chase A. Clark administered the oath of enlistment to a group of women from the Idaho volunteer auxiliary reserves.[28] In Iowa, a unit composed solely of women and girls was organized in 1943 in Davenport and consisted of roughly 150 members who received training in infantry drill, equitation, first aid, radio code, self-defense, scouting, and patrolling from a captain in the Iowa State Guard.[29]

Medical personnel[edit]

More than 60,000 Army nurses (all military nurses were women at the time) served stateside and overseas during World War II. Although most were kept far from combat, 67 were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as POWs for over two and a half years. Another, an Army flight nurse who had been aboard an aircraft that was shot down behind enemy lines in Germany in 1944, was held as a POW for four months.[30][31]

In addition, more than 14,000 Navy nurses served stateside, overseas on hospital ships and as flight nurses. Five were captured by the Japanese on the island of Guam and held as POWs for five months before being exchanged. A second group of eleven were captured in the Philippines and held for 37 months. (During the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, some Filipino-American women smuggled food and medicine to American prisoners of war (POWs) and carried information on Japanese deployments to Filipino and American forces working to sabotage the Japanese Army.[25]) The Navy also recruited women into its Navy Women's Reserve, called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), starting in 1942. Before the war was over, 84,000 WAVES filled shore billets in a large variety of jobs in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine, and administration.[30][32][33]

In 1943, Dr. Margaret Craighill became the first female doctor to become a commissioned officer in the United States Army Medical Corps.[34]

That same year, the U.S. Public Health Service established the Cadet Nurse Corps which trained some 125,000 women for possible military service. Eight percent ultimately provided nursing care in American hospitals.[35]

In 1944, the contributions made by nurses were celebrated when the USS Higbee (DD-806), a GEARING-class destroyer, was launched on November 13. The first warship named for a woman to take part in combat operation, it was named after Lenah S. Higbee, Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1911 until 1922.[36]


But many others were excluded from war-support efforts. Roughly 120,000 Japanese-Americans and resident Japanese aliens on the West Coast were relocated to Manzanar, Heart Mountain and similar internment camps while at least 10,905 German citizens were held at more than 50 sites across the United States and Hawaii.

By 1942, 695,000 Italian nationals residing in the United States had also been classified as "enemy aliens" with roughly 1,881 detained by the Department of Justice under the Alien and Sedition Act.

Partial timeline[edit]

  • 1938: The (U.S.) Naval Reserve Act permitted the enlistment of qualified women as nurses.[37]
  • 1942: The Women's Reserve of the U. S. Coast Guard Reserve program (officially nicknamed the "SPARs"), was first established in 1942.[38]
  • 1942: YN3 Dorothy Tuttle became the first SPAR enlistee when she enlisted in the Coast Guard Women's Reserve on the 7th of December, 1942.[38]
  • 1942: The Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR) was authorized by the U.S Congress in July 1942 to relieve male Marines for combat duty in World War II.[39]
  • 1942: U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Public Law 689 creating the Navy’s women reserve program on 30 July 1942.[40]
  • 1942: The U.S. Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was founded.[41]
  • 1942: The name of the U.S. Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was officially changed to Women's Army Corps (WAC).[42]
  • 1943: The U.S. Women's Army Corps recruited a unit of Chinese-American women to serve with the Army Air Forces as "Air WACs."[25]
  • 1944: Public Law 238 granted full military rank to members of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, who were then all women.[43]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Rosie and Home Front Stories". Richmond, California: Rosie the Riveter Trust, retrieved online July 18, 2018.
  2. ^ Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. New York, New York: NYU Press, 2001.
  3. ^ "Women in World War II," in "U.S. History in Context." Detroit, Michigan: Gale, 2014.
  4. ^ "111th Congress Public Law 40: Women Airforce Service Pilots Congressional Gold Medal." Washington, D.C.: U.S. Congress, 2009.
  5. ^ "Thune Recognizes Women Airforce Service Pilots from World War II - Press Releases - U.S. Senator John Thune". 2012-12-18. Retrieved 2017-06-08..
  6. ^ Shapira, Ian (2011-06-26). "Decades after duty in the OSS and CIA, 'spy girls' find each other in retirement". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2015-03-19.
  7. ^ McIntosh, Elizabeth Peet.Sisterhood of Spies: The Women of the OSS. Annapolis, Maryland: United States Naval Institute Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1591145141).
  8. ^ Platt, Amy E. "'Go into the yard as a worker, not as a woman': Oregon women during World War II, a digital exhibit on the Oregon history project". Oregon Historical Quarterly, Summer 2015, p. 234. Gale Group: "U.S. History in Context".
  9. ^ "Horton first woman to earn veteran status as WWII merchant mariner". Daily Advance. 2017. Retrieved 2017-03-07.
  10. ^ Adams, Frank S. "Women in Democracy’s Arsenal", New York Times, October 19, 1941.
  11. ^ "About 3,000,000 Women Now in War Work" Science News Letter, January 16, 1943.
  12. ^ Doris Weatherford, American Women during World War II(2010). p12
  13. ^ Bradley, La Verne. "Women at Work" National Geographic, August 1944.
  14. ^ a b Weatherford, Doris. American Women during World War II. p.12
  15. ^ Weatherford, Doris. American Women during World War II. New York: Routledge, 2010, p.14
  16. ^ United States. Department of Labor. “Equal Pay in Women’s War Industries”. Bulletin of the Women’s Bureau, no. 196. 1-26. 1942.
  17. ^ Jeffries, John W. War Time America: The World War II Home Front (1996).
  18. ^ Weatherford, American Women and World War II
  19. ^ "Women & the U.S. Coast Guard: Moments in History". United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  20. ^ "Claiming Their Citizenship: African American Women From 1624-2009". National Women's History Museum. Archived from the original on 2012-02-27. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  21. ^ Stremlow, Mary V. Free a Marine to Fight: Women Marines in World War II. Reprint, illustrated ed. DIANE, 1996. Google Book Search. 23 April 2009 <>
  22. ^ "Black America Web". Black America Web. Archived from the original on May 22, 2014. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  23. ^ a b "Celebrating the Legacy: African-American Women Serving in Our Nation's Defense". Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 2012-04-01. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  24. ^ Young woman's life defined by service in Women's Army Corp Archived 2006-09-19 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ a b c d "Asian-Pacific-American Servicewomen in Defense of a Nation". Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 2013-01-08. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  26. ^ Keely Damara. "First Asian American woman Navy officer honored in 'Born to Lead'". PCC Courier. Archived from the original on 2015-04-12. Retrieved 2015-04-12.
  27. ^ "Minnie Spotted Wolf." Washington, D.C.: U.S. National Archives Foundation, retrieved online July 20, 2018.
  28. ^ "Idaho State Guard Auxiliary Members Sworn In by Governor". The Spokesman-Review. Spokane, Washington. 28 September 1942. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  29. ^ "Women Form Military Order of the Guard". The University of Iowa Digital Library. 15 March 1943. Retrieved 27 May 2018.
  30. ^ a b "Resources-Historical Frequently Asked Questions". Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 2006-05-29. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  31. ^ Mary T. Sarnecky, A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps (1999)
  32. ^ Bonar, Nancy Yockey (November 16, 2010). "All-Aboard! Navy Welcomes Women to Submarine Fleet". On Patrol. Archived from the original on December 15, 2013. Retrieved January 7, 2013.
  33. ^ Jean Ebbert and Mary-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women in a Century of Change (1999)
  34. ^ Windsor, Laura Lynn (2002). "Craighill, Margaret D.". Women in Medicine: An Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-57607-392-6.
  35. ^ "Cadet Nurses' Legacy to Nursing |". Retrieved 2016-01-23.
  36. ^ "History & Firsts". Navy Personnel Command. Archived from the original on 2014-10-10. Retrieved 2013-01-07.
  37. ^ "Timeline of Women in the US Navy". United States Navy - Navy Personnel Command. Archived from the original on 10 October 2014. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  38. ^ a b "Women's History Chronology". Retrieved 2015-03-19.
  39. ^ "Marine Corps Reserve Association - This Month in History". Retrieved 2015-03-19.
  40. ^ Comerford, Tim. "WAVES Turn the Tides of Military Gender Segregation". Washington, D.C.: U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, August 10, 2012.
  41. ^ "Women Army Corps | Women Auxiliary Army Corps". Archived from the original on March 21, 2014. Retrieved February 12, 2014.
  42. ^ "Women in the U.S. Army Timeline". Archived from the original on March 17, 2014. Retrieved February 12, 2014.
  43. ^ "Women's Milestones in Naval History". Naval History & Heritage Command. Archived from the original on April 8, 2010. Retrieved February 12, 2014.

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Primary sources[edit]

  • Cantril, Hadley and Mildred Strunk, eds. Public Opinion, 1935-1946 (U.S. opinion poll compilation). Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1951.