The First Women in the Military

Today most of us know women who have served in the military and many who served overseas in combat. But how many of us know about the first women in the military? And how many know what our mothers and grandmothers did during WWII? Did they serve in the military? Red Cross? Defense industry? During World War II women’s lives changed. The vital role they played, both as civilians and in the military, impacted the outcome of the war and changed how American women viewed themselves.

Women filled the void left by men who either joined or were drafted into the military after Pearl Harbor. Factories converted to wartime production needed workers so, out of necessity, they hired women. Jobs formerly reserved for men opened up for women. Females worked in factories, hospitals, offices, and farms. And some of them joined the military. Of course, it took an act of Congress to allow women into the armed services, but with strong enemies across the Atlantic and Pacific the U. S. needed to utilize all its resources.

Before 1942 women who supported the military worked as civilians, except for Army Nurses. With Congressional authorization the Navy established the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services) and the Coast Guard SPARS (Semper Paratus – Always Ready) as part of the Department of the Navy. The Army chose to create two “auxiliary” units, the Womens Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and the Womens Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).  These women’s auxiliaries had separate command structures, they were paid less than men, and they had no military benefits like life insurance or veterans medical benefits.  With WAAC’s being sent overseas, the Army recognized the problems and in 1943 the Women’s Army Corps was authorized as an official part of the Regular Army. But the WASP never gained the same status and it was disbanded in December, 1944. Authorization for women in the WAC, WAVES, and SPARS only lasted for the “duration plus six months.” At that time these women’s’ military organizations ceased to exist.

After much political discussion the WAC was reinstated in 1947. Many today may not realize that women remained segregated from the regular Army until 1978. Yes, it was post Vietnam when the separate Women’s Army Corps was abolished and women were integrated into the regular Army.

In the 1940’s many across America opposed women serving in the military. Back then most believed that a woman’s place was in the home. Culturally it was difficult for both men and women to accept. Many female enlistees were accused of being immoral or gay. Some men refused to let their wives, girl friends, daughters or sisters join up. But other families supported and encouraged their young women to do their patriotic duty.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt threw her support behind the women who volunteered to serve. The media used advertising to promote images of  women in uniform and Hollywood made movies depicting beautiful starlets serving in the various branches of the armed forces. Thousands of women answered the call.

What was it like for those first female soldiers? Seeing women in uniform was a new experience for everyone. Young ladies donned newly designed, skirted uniforms, little green sear-sucker fatigue dresses for their rigorous physical training and twill jumpsuits or coveralls for heavier work. Girls left home for the first time and found themselves  living in open barracks with no privacy, not even in the shower. They learned to march in step, keeping the seams of their heavy cotton stockings straight. Long hikes carrying heavy packs toughened the most feminine. Failing inspections drew the dreaded gigs and led to extra hours of KP (Kitchen Police) duty. In basic training male instructors taught them military regulations and procedures until enough women were trained and available to take over. Many specialized training courses took place on college campuses where the military  commandeered both space and teachers. Others trained alongside the men. Unlike modern female soldiers, the WAC’s of WWII were considered non-combatants so they were not trained to shoot or handle weapons.

In researching my latest work-in-progress I read some memoirs that give  fascinating, first- hand accounts of WAC’s wartime experiences. “Call of Duty, A Montana Girl in World War II” by Grace Porter Miller, “Mollie’s War” by Mollie Weinstein Schaffer, and “One Woman’s War, Letters Home from the Women’s Army Corp 1944-1946” by Anne Bosanko Green give three diverse accounts of Army life during the war.

And to answer my other question, my mother did clerical work as a civilian at several military bases as she followed my father from one post to another. My dad and two of his three brothers served in the Army, while the third worked in a defense plant. My mother’s sisters also worked in defense plants. So no WAC’s or WAVES in my immediate family. But my sister’s mother-in-law served in the WAC’s. The woman was quite a character and I wish I had had the opportunity to talk to her about her military service and her experiences during World War II before she died.  The “Greatest Generation,” both men and women, are quickly dying off and they take with them the stories of their service to their country so many years ago.

Today’s female soldiers, as well as all American women who work outside the home, benefit from what these brave women did during World War II. They stepped up and proved that they were capable of doing almost any job. I believe that the women’s movement had its origins in the mothers who, after the war, told their daughters they could do any thing they wanted to do. The women of the Greatest Generation believed it because of what they did in helping to win the war.

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