Women During World War II

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Date: 1999
Publisher: Primary Source Media
Series: American Journey
Document Type: Essay
Length: 1,515 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 1050L

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World War II brought about dramatic changes for women on the civilian and military fronts.


Women's participation in the American labor force grew tremendously. To fill jobs left vacant by men fighting on the battlegrounds, the government established the War Manpower Commission in 1942 to alert women to the nation's need for them to work outside the home. The commission advertised in newspapers, on radio, and in films, urging women to go to work and urging businesses to stay open at night to accommodate working women.

"Almost overnight women were reclassified by industrials from a marginal to a basic labor supply for munitions making," observed Mary Anderson, director of the Women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor.

By April 1942, women's participation in government-sponsored vocational training grew from 1 percent to 13 percent. Female applicants for non-government positions increased from 29 percent to 55 percent of all applicants. Overall, the number of women in the labor force grew 110 percent; but in war industries, their presence grew 460 percent. Before the war, 36 women worked in ship construction. A year later, 160,000 were employed in those same positions. Women electrical workers jumped from 100,000 to 374,000, and women working in heavy industry went from 340,000 to over 2 million. The airplane industry's workforce was only 1 percent female prior to World War II. In 1943, 39 percent of the workers were women.

Women worked as lathe operators and lumberjacks. A former beautician became a switchwoman on a Long Island railroad, and a Gary, Indiana, woman operated an overhead crane. Other women worked as city taxicab drivers. Women's colleges offered courses in auto repair and airplane spotting. Women volunteered to work with the Red Cross, and sports fans were entertained by all-female softball leagues that the Saturday Evening Post called a "baffling mix of Dead End Kids and Sweet Alice." A New York State volunteer firehouse in 1943 was staffed entirely by 13 women, because the men were serving in the armed forces.

The need for adequate day care arose because so many women responded to and filled the positions left open by men. The Latham Act of 1943 had been enacted to build defense-related industries. It was used to construct the child-care centers that cities and states could not afford to build. However, government red tape "had delayed more than it had furthered," said journalist Agnes Meyer. Ironically, Congressman Latham was opposed to women working and "his" money being used to build day-care centers. The Federal Works Administration allotted $50 million during the war years for child care. Still, only 10 percent of the children needing day care were accommodated by the war's end. Funding was withdrawn with the onset of peace, at which time the women were expected to return to their traditional roles of mothers and homemakers.


During the war years, women's organizations demanded the inclusion of women in the military. Each branch of the U.S. military formed its own branch for women. When women first entered the army legally, they did so through the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), established in 1942. Its first director was Oveta Culp Hobby, who in 1945 became was the first woman to receive the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal for her work with the corps. She later served as the first secretary of health, education, and welfare and became the second woman to attain cabinet status after President Dwight Eisenhower elevated the department to cabinet level.

The WAAC became the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1942. "Auxiliary" was dropped from its name in 1943, when the WACs became a branch of the regular army. Women in the WACs worked in such capacities as secretaries, clerks, and medical personnel. The WACs were initially only to be used during World War II, but shortages in hospitals and offices prompted the war department to request the women to re-enlist. They became part of the regular army through the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. Mary Agnes Hallaren (1907- ) was the first woman to receive a commission in the regular army and served as the WAC director from 1947 to 1953.

The SPARS were created in 1942 as the women's sector of the Coast Guard. Named for the Coast Guard's motto, Semper Paratus, the SPARS were headed by Lt. Commander Dorothy Constance Stratton. Roughly 13,000 women were SPARS, freeing Coast Guard servicemen for front-line duty. Women found promotions easier to obtain in the Coast Guard than in other branches of the armed services, and the women of the SPARS seemed to receive some of the best assignments. They were part of the top-secret project LORAN, or Long Range Aid to Navigation, a plotting and course-tracking system that is still in use today. The project eventually was completely staffed by women.

The Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service, or WAVES, the women's branch of the navy, also was founded in 1942. It was headed by Mildred McAfee Horton (1900-1994). In August 1944, the navy ship the Santuary became the first ship to have women serving on board, with two officers and 60 enlisted women. In October of that same year, the WAVES admitted the first black women to military service. The Marine Corps Woman's Reserve, or MCWRS, for which there was no nickname, began operation January 29, 1943, with Ruth Cheney Streeter (1895-1990) as its director. In all, nearly 350,000 women served in the armed forces during World War II.

The Woman's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, or WAFS, headed by Nancy Harkness Love (1914-1976), eventually became part of the Army Air Forces. The WAFS were responsible for moving planes from one area to another. WAFS women were the most experienced and elite women pilots of the day. They had flown for a living before the war.

The Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) were formed as part of the army air corps. Of 25,000 applicants, 1,074 passed the tests to become the first all-female pilot squadron in U.S. history. Jacqueline Cochran (1910-1980) headed the corps of women, who flew noncombat missions. They tested new planes' flying abilities, did instrument checks, flew planes from factories to bases and towed targets used in the training of ground-to-air and air-to-air attacks. Of the 1,074 WASPS, only 38 lost their lives in the two years that the WASPS existed, a survival rate better than that of men flying similar missions. Abolished in 1944, WASPS members were given military status and veterans' benefits in 1979.

Women also worked as spies in World War II. Alice Marble (1913- ), a winner of twelve U.S. Open and five Wimbledon professional tennis titles, and a member of the Tennis Hall of Fame, became an agent for the United States in pursuit of information about the Nazis at the end of the war. She obtained records of Nazi thievery from the safe of a Swiss banker and with a bullet in her back, she made the way back to her contacts. The information she retrieved led to convictions at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.


One group of women was victimized during the war. In 1942, a nervous Defense Command and a number of angry West Coast citizens groundlessly feared that Japanese Americans were encouraging Japanese coastal naval raids. They pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9066, authorizing the secretary of war to set up military areas from which Japanese-American civilians would be excluded. It was followed one month later by the notorious Executive Order 9102, by which the President formed the War Relocation Authority to remove and relocate the excluded citizens. Both were aimed at the innocent Japanese-American population. Farewell to Manzanar (1973) is one of many books to recreate the shameful way in which these citizens and immigrants, mostly women and children, were treated.


When Japan surrendered in 1945, 15 years of upheaval—starting with the Depression of 1929-1941 and continuing through America's participation in the War (1941-1945)—came to an end. The war's influence on the roles and status of women were dramatic. As historian William H. Chafe points out, "in 1938, over 38 percent of the American people strongly opposed work by married women. Five years later, over 60 percent approved of such employment." When peace came, women's "place" was in transition.

Margaret Mead (1901-1978), one of the 20th century's most accomplished and admired women, gave speeches in which she argued that the nurturing of children was a source of power. Most Americans probably agreed with her. But novelist Fannie Hurst (1889-1968) also spoke publicly, maintaining that the post-war period was one of transition for women, who needed to move into positions of power in government, business, and education: "Where do we go from here? Do we, as in the last World War, step aside when our men come home and resume economically, industrially, almost where we left off?" Hurst's conclusion was, "No, because nothing is permanent but change." History proved her correct, but not before the social and political roles of women were tested in the postwar years.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|EJ2161000690