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WWII : Women and the War

The history of women who served in or with the US military during World War II is a complex story of policy development, cultural expectations, social norms, race relationships and citizenship. While this may be stated for almost any era, the sheer numbers of women in the military and the global significance of World War II reinforce the impact of the event. The war changed women’s expectations and gave impetus to movement for greater gender equality—even though postwar society expected women to leave the workplace and focus on their roles as wives and mothers.

The information in this section summarizes articles from In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II, edited by Major General Jeanne M. Holm, USAF (Ret.) and Judith Bellafaire, Ph.D., Chief Historian of the Women’s Memorial Foundation (Arlington, Virginia: Vandamere Press, 1998).

More than any other event in this century, World War II transformed the United States from an isolationist country with a small military establishment designed primarily for self-defense into a leading military power with forces stationed around the globe. In the process, the US Armed Forces were transformed from essentially all-male to mixed-gender forces.

Almost 400,000 women served in and with the armed forces—a number that exceeded total male troop strength in 1939. They enlisted “for the duration plus six months” to free male soldiers for combat by filling jobs that matched women’s “natural” abilities—clerical work and jobs requiring rote attention to detail and small motor skills. The Congressional debate that preceded their authorization also addressed the appropriateness of allowing women to exercise their rights and responsibilities as American citizens.

They served in the Army and Navy Nurse Corps, Women’s Army Corps (WAC), and in the Navy (WAVES), Coast Guard (SPARs) and Marine Corps Women’s Reserves. Although not officially members of the armed forces, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) provided critical support for the war effort. Other women worked with the military through service with organizations such as the American Red Cross, the United Service Organizations (USO), and the Civil Air Patrol.

By the end of the war, there were few noncombatant jobs in which women did not serve, including positions that hadn’t even existed when the war began—positions brought about by scientific and technological advances to aid the war effort. They were in every service branch and were assigned to every combat theater. Nurses and WACs served overseas throughout the war. WAVES, SPARs, and Women Marines were restricted from overseas assignments until near the end of the war when they were sent to the territories of Hawaii and Alaska—then considered overseas duty because they were not yet states. Women earned Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars and Legions of Merit. Some were held as prisoners of war and some died in the service of their country.

Women’s participation in the US Armed Forces during World War II was a major turning point in the relationship of women to the military. The initial response to the idea of enlisting women met enormous resistance. As the war escalated and the national pool of qualified male draftees dwindled, it became clear that for every woman recruited, one less man had to be drafted. Women volunteers came to be viewed not just as a source of women’s skills, but as a valuable source of high-quality personnel to meet overall manpower requirements for the massive military buildup. Toward the end of the war, a scarcity developed in a highly traditional and essential woman’s skill, nursing. When the Army Surgeon General announced that not enough nurses were volunteering for military service, President Roosevelt requested a nurse draft bill in his 1945 State of the Union address. A bill quickly passed in the House of Representatives, but stalled in the Senate.

When Germany surrendered in May 1945, the need for a nurse draft evaporated and the bill was set aside.

Commanders who had once stated that they would accept women “over my dead body” soon welcomed them and asked for more. GEN Eisenhower told Congress after the war, that when the formation of women’s units was first proposed, “I was violently against it.” Then he added, “Every phase of the record they compiled during the war convinced me of the error of my first reaction.” Eisenhower went on to fight for a permanent place for women in the US Armed Forces.

After the war, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz told Congress that when the formation of the WAVES was first contemplated, “I was one of the doubters in the early days … and I was definitely reluctant to see this women’s program started. However after it [the WAVES] started and after I saw it work, I became a convert.”