Women in History of World War II: Retrospective

Introduction

The role of women in modern history, particularly since the era of industrialization is extensive, but remains severely understudied in academia and underestimated by the broader society.1 Industrialization brought with it the shift in labor participation as women became actively engaged in factories alongside men which boosted the female role and civic participation.2 As the 20th century progressed, women became greatly active in society, especially during wars, with female influence and involvement becoming apparent in both civilian duty and enlistment in armed forces.3 When World War II broke out, society was still relatively conservative in regard to female roles, but the needs of the war and activism allowed women to establish themselves as valuable members of society and military. The topic of female participation in World War II is a niche academic focus, requiring greater examination to understand the reasoning and motivations of women at the time. American women were driven by a feminist worldview and an opportunity for self-determination to actively participate in both civil activities and military duty during World War II to instigate changes in societal attitudes and the status quo.

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Civil Activities of Women in the Time of World War II

It is critical to note the long history of women intellectual, social, and political rights development which allowed for them to gradually acquire the standing and recognition to create social change and actively participate in the efforts and events of the war. For decades leading up to World War II, women in the United States fought for their rights, demanding political and social influence. After the famous suffrage movement of the early 20th century and some participation in World War I, women did gain significant influence in society being able to vote, drive, and be business owners, but were still continuously overshadowed by men and it was conventional for most to remain as housewives and full-time mothers. It was rare to see women in the workforce outside very niche industries or jobs. Therefore, leading up to World War II women were an integral part of society supporting households and aspects of socialization, but mostly in the context of their husbands and families, without any compensation or protections.4 While some aspects of feminism and the fight for women’s rights were ongoing, it was frowned upon by the middle-class conventions, and there no ample opportunities for a change in social status quo until the United States entered World War II.

Although the thesis of this paper focuses on the military service of American women in World War II, the civil activity on the “home front” was vital to both the war effort and ensuring women with certain rights and responsibilities. When the United States entered the war and hundreds of thousands of men were drafted, there became an obvious gap in the workforce. Industrial facilities and factories which were quickly converted towards war production and maximized their output were seeing evident shortages. At this point, both social responsibility and government propaganda encouraged women to change their societal roles and enter jobs at the factories in order to support the economy and the country’s war efforts.5 A whole propaganda campaign was run with inspirational figures such as Rosie the Riveter that sought to empower women in the time of national crisis and tremendous social change.

Women quickly adapted to work in defense plants and war-related organizations as well as managing households, including responsibilities that often fell upon men such as car maintenance and finances. Due to rationing and shortages, the household management was also affected as women had to adapt by saving scrap metal and growing their own gardens if possible. In the workforce, women took upon numerous jobs that were always practiced by men at this point in time, ranging from factories to drivers, farming, and some leadership positions. In addition, the role of women in traditional roles such as nursing, clerical and administrative support, and even entertainment became vital in supporting the war efforts or soldiers rotating from the front.6 Despite little recognition given to women in World War II, most historians agree that without the efforts of females on the home front, the eventual victory would have come at a much greater cost.

The unprecedented scale of the military conflict that was World War II that led to the mobilization of American society, industry, and military with great urgency. This made the possibility of expanding women’s roles inevitable. Women had the ambition and desire to contribute to the war effort in every role or profession. Many had the necessary qualifications to work as administrative workers or medical staff in the military or war-related industry. Meanwhile, many women quickly adapted to gain the necessary qualifications for more specialty jobs or even direct military service. The rate of female enlistment during World War II was greater than any previous military conflict in which the United States was involved in, with approximately 400,000 women serving in various capacity on the front lines and significantly more providing logistical support for the soldiers. 7

Military Service of Women in World War II

As women began entering the military or war-related service on the front lines, the large majority were assigned non-combat roles. In fact, very few American women participated in direct battlefield combat throughout World War II. Due to the nature of American engagement in the war which was more planned and strategic, along with transport and a good reserve of enlisted men, the U.S. government was reluctant to put women in combat situations due to public pressure domestically. This is in contrast with many European nations and the Soviet Union where the Nazi invasion and total war led to formation of whole actively fighting units of women soldiers, both officially sanctioned and partisans. Female participants on the front lines had a number of non-combat responsibilities including vital communications, photography and journalism, and clerical or administrative duties.8

However, the most prominent role of women on the front lines was serving as medical personnel, in all branches of the armed forces and in practically every important base, ship, or battle. All military nurses were women, with some female doctors becoming officers by 1943 in the Army Medical Corps. The military in great need of medical personnel, offered free training to eligible women and fair pay, with promises of benefits thereafter. Close to 100,000 military nurses were serving across all branches, actively engaging in medical aid and risking their lives. The medical support provided by the nursing corps resulted in the U.S. military having an extremely low 4% death rate after a soldier received an injury. Unlike previous conflicts, female medical personnel during World War II served in harsh conditions and field hospitals, close to the battle sites. Several hundred nurses died during the war and some were held as prisoners of war by the Japanese, experiencing abuse. After the war, the female medical personnel received minimal recognition or benefits, with only by 1983 that there was an official government honor and funding provided for support of these women.9

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As the war progressed, the U.S. military saw an increase in enlistment from females to join the military in combat capacity, which was highly unorthodox and problematic logistically since no female units existed in the military ever before. After hiring civilian women for non-combat positions, some branches of the military began to create specialized units. In 1942, the Coast Guard created a Women’s Reserve which famously became known as the SPARs. Later that year the U.S. Army would establish the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) which would include over 150,000 women that actively served across both the European and Pacific theaters. It is important to note that minority women also joined the military and war effort, facing even greater challenges than white women at the time. However, under the WAC, specialized units such as the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion were formed that allowed for a female, African American contingent.10

By 1943, the Navy and the Marine Corps would establish their own reserves with female units which allowed women to enlist in these various branches of the military. Even if not often placed on combat duty, the enlisted women served critical roles in the war efforts and the military operations serving as clerks, cooks, drivers, and other supporting positions. With the urging of Eleanor Roosevelt that was a champion for women’s rights and the oversight of General Marshall which was influenced by the use of women in the British military, female service branches were introduced into the armed forces at home and abroad.11 The large number of American female soldiers which chose to join the armed forces in the period between 1941 and 1945 greatly contributed to the advancement of the U.S. war efforts during World War II.

One prominent example of a U.S. female officer in the Navy was Joy Hancock who was an active participant and veteran of both world wars. Hancock was a pioneer for female inclusion in the armed forces, particularly in the Navy. Earning a rank of commander during the war, she is known for creating the Navy reserve for women known as Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) in 1942. Although it was disbanded after the war, the unit led to the regular commission of women in the U.S. Navy. Hancock eventually became the director of WAVES and strongly championed for its military inclusion with various government and military agencies which is admirable considering that the use of women in the navy was supported neither by Congress nor the public.12 While the WAVES unit so no combat, it served vital roles in shore establishments and protection as men were mobilized for active duty and paved a path for further service and officer positions among many women during and after the war.

The U.S. Air Force was a popular enlistment option for women who showed desire to participate in military service during World War II. The desire to join the military and a common idea of standing against oppression of the enemy, drove many existing and potential pilots to join the air force.13 The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was created as a civilian organization where federal civil service members could train to become pilots for the purposes of testing and transferring aircraft or train newcomers. Despite not seeing active combat, it was a dangerous job with 38 women losing their lives, with planes often lacking the safety equipment of an appropriate size. Nevertheless, WASP represented significant dedication and patriotism from women who often invested large amounts of their own money to obtain a pilot’s license and had to pay for their own uniforms and transportation as the organization was not subsidized by the military. WASP numbered at approximately 1100 individuals and were critical in the logistics of the U.S. Air Force testing, delivery, and positioning of its aircraft and supplies across the numerous bases.14

It was highly controversial for women to fly aircraft at the time as highly complex and mechanical pieces of military hardware. Women flew all types of aircraft utilized by the U.S. Air Force, including the difficult planes such as the B-29 Superfortress, and in some instances participated in combat exercises. Ann Baumgartner was a prominent member of WASP and an excellent pilot, selected to test new aircraft. She became one of the first aviators and the first American woman to fly a jet aircraft when testing the new Bell YP-59A fighter.15 This and other feats accomplished by WASP pilots demonstrated that women could withstand the pressures and physical stress while having the same high level of skill as male pilots.

Similar to WAVES for the navy, WASP was meant to take the place of male pilots which left for combat, but the organization had no military standing during the war. WASP attempted to achieve military status throughout the war, with support of some Congress representatives and military leadership. However, the War department and many politicians opposed the move, pressured by the mass media and public lobbying which continued to support the status quo of domestication of women. As the war came to its end and male pilots returned home wanting their jobs back, under public pressure WASP was dismantled at the end of 1944.16 Nevertheless, this program was vital towards the war efforts and contributed to the establishment of female air force pilots in active duty in future conflicts.

Espionage

The art of military espionage saw significant attention during World War II, particularly in Europe where governments continuously implanted spies and saboteurs amongst the enemy. It was a dangerous but highly needed element of warfare, a position where women were highly effective using charm and sexuality to obtain sensitive military information vital for the war effort. As spy agencies were expanding, including the predecessor to the CIA known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), intelligence services needed to cope with the need for covert action to be conducted in German-occupied European nations.

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While espionage was a male-dominated profession, leadership in Allied intelligence networks saw the benefits of female spies. Despite a rather sexist perspective in modern-day terms, the charm and sexuality potential of female agents could be potently utilized according to the intelligence frameworks at the time. However, World War II also brought opportunities for female spies to engage in much deeper espionage as well as take on certain leadership roles and operation planning. Similar to other military branches, the OSS recruited women massively during the war for clerical and administrative jobs, but many participated in important projects. For example, the chief of the OSS, William Donovan was a supporter of recruiting women to the agency, and his own secretary Eloise Page helped plan vital operations such as Operation Torch for the invasion of North Africa, never receiving any recognition.17

Vera Atkins was a prominent British intelligence officer which served throughout World War II, laying the groundwork for female participation in espionage and serving as an inspiration to American intelligence agencies as well. First joining the British intelligence organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) as a secretary, she quickly rose up in ranks and became a de facto intelligence officer. Atkins worked in the French department of the SOE and served the primary role of recruiting British agents in occupied France, many of which were women. Atkins was responsible for establishing a vast network of communications and transportation, which ensured vital and secure delivery of intelligence throughout the war from France to Britain. As Britain was in diplomatic talks with the U.S. in regard to opening a European front, Churchill collaborated with Donovan to determine the situation in Europe. Atkins spent time with Donovan and impressed him with her skills and ability to mount civil resistance and intelligence operations covertly.18 Atkins is commonly known as a symbolic and empowering female figure that paved the way for women in espionage.

However, the most well-known American female spy during World War II is Virginia Hall, who also worked heavily with the SOE on behalf of the OSS and went down in history of U.S. participation in the war. Hall, coming from a wealthy family, had significant education and knowledge of languages, striving to become ambassador with the State Department. She volunteered to drive ambulances in France until its capitulation and was spotted and redirected to the SOE by an undercover agent. Similar to other women, she was met with significant challenge and prejudice, but continued her resolve as a spy, eventually earning a highly respected reputation. At first, Hall worked in France by collecting information and developing new methods of cooperating with the locals while staying ahead of the Gestapo, eventually earning a bounty on her life.19

After narrowly escaping, Hall transferred to the OSS, once again facing prejudice but demonstrating leadership. She led the OSS intelligence efforts by dangerously returning to France and establishing a spy network of more than 1,500 people. She helped to organize and arm guerilla resistance which allowed to free large parts of France towards the end of the war. Hall was awarded with the Distinguished Service Cross, being the only civilian woman to receive one during the war. Despite her achievements, Hall faced significant barriers and discrimination in the intelligence community after the war but joined the newly formed CIA until her retirement.20 Hall remains a legendary figure in the U.S. intelligence community as a dedicated and empowering female role model.

Official Recognition and Empowerment

The struggles and sacrifices of American women during the war coincided with the movement to recognize women as righteous and official participants in military service with subsequent protections and benefits. The numerous contributions of women during World War II described above along with significant public pressure and activism resulted in the recognition of Women’s Army Corps by governmental institutions and as a permanent part of the U.S. military. This became possible when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 was passed by Congress.21

Immediately after the war, as men returned, many women were forced out of the workforce once again and brought them back to domesticity in the short-term. Even those that actively participated in the military had issues taking advantages of certain benefits that the G.I. bill offered such as employment and pensions. However, the war had a profound long-term impact on society by influencing gender roles, and instigated the process of change in the workspace, salary, and benefits for women, driven by the empowering effects of government propaganda and women’s participation in industries during World War II. The war provided an opportunity for women to work outside the domestic life and were patriotically encouraged to participate, no matter their marital status, age, ethnicity, or socio-economic background. It resulted in fundamental shifts in industry ranging from working hours to uniforms and bathroom space, driven largely by the Rosie the Riveter campaign and those women in the military service. After the war, women sought to keep their positions and many turned to feminist activism, resulting in a new wave of the Women’s Movement which was only carried further due to the revolution in mass communication technology, popular media, and widespread publicity. While it took time for women to gain the recognition of merit and benefits for their civil and military service during the war, without the mass mobilization of women in the workforce and armed services, it would have taken significantly longer.

The challenges that women faced during World War II both at home and in the military service were extensive, particularly those with families or from minority backgrounds. Women faced significant public pressure to contribute to the war effort while remaining within socially acceptable parameters, they were forced to be tough yet feminine. For their efforts and sacrifice, women received little to no recognition, while after the war many were laid off and not receiving proper benefits. However, the war empowered women in the workforce, military, as well as activism. By the 1950’s, women began to actively engage in all aspects of society and in the next decades there was a widespread recognition or establishment of women in various industries and branches of the military. This was done based on the examples and efforts set by females during World War II, which solidified the notion that women were equal members of society.

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Conclusion

Historically, women have had to face significant challenges and an upward battle against social constraints to achieve even the most fundamental rights, freedoms, and recognition. Although a deadly and devastating conflict, World War II became a time when women had the opportunity to expand their roles and establish themselves as equal members of society. The inclusion of women in civil and military activities during the war was extensive but highly controversial as it went against the status quo and it was difficult for many in leadership to accept the women’s resolve to join the military. A significant number of women enlisted in the US army along with large contingent employed as supporting staff for the military. On the home front, women joined the workforce in large numbers to replace the men leaving for war and uplifting the war-production industry while also creating war-related organizations. The active participation of women in civil and military activities during World War II facilitated the advancement of the United States to eventual victory. In turn, this led to far-reaching recognition and empowerment of women on both the official and societal level resulting in improvement of rights and greater equality.

Bibliography

“American Women in World War II” History. Web.

Bellafaire, Judith A. The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service. Washington: US Army Center of Military History, 1993.

Carl, Ann B. A WASP Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999.

Chafe, William Henry. Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Flexner, Eleanor, and Ellen Fitzpatrick. Century of struggle: the woman’s rights movement in the United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Hancock, Joy Bright. Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972.

Helm, Sarah. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII. New York: Anchor Books, 2007.

“It’s a Woman’s War Too” The National Archives. Web.

Monahan, Evelyn, and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee. A Few Good Women: America’s Military Women from World War I to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Morden, Bettie J. The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1978. Washington: Center of Military History, US Army, 1990.

Mundy, Liza. “Female Spies and Their Secrets” The Atlantic, 2019. Web.

Roos, Dave. “World War II’s ‘Most Dangerous’ Allied Spy Was a Woman With a Wooden Leg” History, 2018. Web.

Rupp, Leila J. Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Santana, Maria Cristina. “From Empowerment to Domesticity: The Case of Rosie the Riveter and the WWII Campaign.” Frontiers in Sociology 1, no. 16 (2016)

Sigerman, Harriet. The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

“Women Come to the Front: Journalists, Photographers, and Broadcasters During World War II” Library of Congress. Web.

Footnotes

  1. W. H. Chafe, Women and Equality: Changing Patterns in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 3-4.
  2. L. J. Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939-1945 (Princeton University Press, 2015), 4.
  3. American Women in World War IIHistory. Web
  4. Eleanor Flexner and Ellen Fitzpatrick, Century of struggle: the woman’s rights movement in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 196-198.
  5. “It’s a Woman’s War Too” The National Archives. Web.
  6. H. Sigerman, The Columbia Documentary History of American Women Since 1941 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 1.
  7. Sigerman, 15
  8. Evelyn Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee, A Few Good Women: America’s Military Women from World War I to the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 16-18.
  9. J. A. Bellafaire, The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service (Washington: US Army Center of Military History, 1993), 3-5.
  10. Bellafaire, 35
  11. J. B. Hancock, Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972). 9-11.
  12. A. B. Carl, A WASP Among Eagles: A Woman Military Test Pilot in World War II (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 3.
  13. Carl, 33
  14. Carl, 120
  15. Liza Mundy, “Female Spies and Their Secrets” The Atlantic, 2019. Web.
  16. S. Helm, A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII (New York: Anchor Books, 2007), ix-x.
  17. B. J. Morden, The Women’s Army Corps, 1945-1978 (Washington: Center of Military History, US Army, 1990), 76-77.
  18. Maria Cristina Santana, “From Empowerment to Domesticity: The Case of Rosie the Riveter and the WWII Campaign,” Frontiers in Sociology 1, no. 16 (2016)
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