Did women volunteers serve in World War II?

U.S. Navy pharmacist's mate Dorothy Abbott adjusts a patient's head, preparing to take X-rays of his skull.
U.S. Navy pharmacist's mate Dorothy Abbott adjusts a patient's head, preparing to take X-rays of his skull.
US Navy/Getty Images

The dominant opinion throughout most of history was that women and war don't mix. This was partly because societies valued women as child-bearers. It was also due to the prevailing opinion that they weren't strong enough to wield heavy weapons in battle or sharp enough to understand tactical war strategies. Besides a few notable exceptions, such as Joan of Arc, women were banned from combat -- but that's not to say they were shielded from the horrors of war. On the contrary, as nurses caring for wounded soldiers, women were often exposed to the brunt of the blood and gore.

In the course of World War II, however, women's roles were changing on all fronts. The U.S. military, which was eager to boost its numbers, warmed up to the idea of allowing women into positions previously reserved for men. During World War I, a loophole was discovered in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916. The act specified the conditions for service in the Navy, but it didn't mention anything about gender. As a result, approximately 11,000 women enlisted in the Navy and became "Yeomen (F)" by the end of the war [source: U.S. Navy].

These female yeomen (or yeomanettes, as they were commonly called) mostly held clerical positions. A small number of them served as recruiting agents, translators and fingerprint experts. However, after the war, most of the yeomanettes were released from duty. It wasn't until World War II that women would secure a more permanent presence in the military.

Ironically, the most prominent women's unit sounded anything but permanent when it was formed. In 1942, Congress passed a law establishing Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). The female lieutenant who is credited with naming the division said she intentionally included the word "emergency" to comfort the old-fashioned officials who wanted the corps to be strictly temporary [source: Yellin]. Despite any dissonant views, WAVES became an influential division in the war and forged a place for women in the U.S. military.

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)

Women who joined the U.S. Navy were able to free more men for service overseas.
Women who joined the U.S. Navy were able to free more men for service overseas.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even if some members of the military and Congress were reluctant to give women a bigger role in the armed forces, they couldn't deny the advantages of recruiting women during wartime. With women filling clerical roles and other positions, men could be tapped for service overseas.

Before Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) was established, the U.S. Army had already started incorporating women through the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). However, as the name indicates, this was merely an auxiliary corps at first. WAVES, on the other hand, was at its inception a part of the Navy -- an important distinction [source: Yellin]. And the WAVES, as its members were called, enjoyed many more opportunities than their predecessors, the World War I-era yeomanettes.

After WAVES was created in 1942, Mildred McAfee, the president of Wellesley College, became its first commander. Recruits were initiated into the Navy in training camps set up at various college campuses. There, they learned Navy traditions and were introduced to naval operations and weapons [source: Yellin].

After many skilled and educated women proved their mettle fulfilling clerical duties, WAVES were able to assume other roles. WAVES became naval air navigators, aviation machinists' mates and technicians. Some even trained Navy airmen how to use anti-aircraft guns. Notably, WAVES received the same compensation as their male counterparts of the same rank (though positions available to women were more limited than those men could hold) [source: Cook].

One of WAVES' most significant contributions during the war had to do with code breaking. About 550 WAVES stationed in Dayton, Ohio, operated bombes -- electromechanical machines used to decipher German codes. These WAVES needed to work in shifts to manage the bombes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Such tireless efforts arguably shaved years off the length of the war [source: Dalton].

By the end of the war, approximately 86,000 women served as WAVES, comprising about 2 percent of the Navy. And at several naval stations in the United States, WAVES made up the majority of positions.

After the war was over, the Navy didn't disband WAVES. Officials finally began to realize the benefits of including women in the military. Thus, in 1948, Congress passed the Women's Armed Services Integration Act, which made women a permanent fixture in the military. As a result, the WAVES unit was finally dissolved.

Other Military Women in World War II

A U.S. military handout from 1951, including representation for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
A U.S. military handout from 1951, including representation for the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.
FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although WAVES was arguably the most influential women's military unit in the United States, the Navy wasn't the only place for women to serve during World War II. As we mentioned on the previous page, the Army had its own women's unit called the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), which was set up for purposes similar to WAVES. The WAAC worked overseas (unlike the WAVES), but its members didn't enjoy equal pay to their male counterparts or the same benefits as WAVES were afforded. WAAC attained full military status like WAVES did in 1943, and it became known as the Women's Army Corps (WAC).

The United States wasn't the only country to welcome women into the armed forces at this time. Britain passed a law in 1941 to authorize drafting single women between the ages of 20 and 30 for military service [source: Wagner]. Approximately 125,000 women were drafted as a result. Still, the majority of the women who made up these special British auxiliaries (about 450,000) were volunteers. Like the WAVES and WACs, these British women were recruited for clerical jobs to free men for service, but defied expectations when they assumed more hands-on roles. Though they were close to the action, women were strictly forbidden from firing at the enemy [source: Wagner].

Interestingly, not all women were barred from traditionally male roles on the front line during the war. In the USSR, women served and fought in all branches of the Soviet military. The Soviets had both all-female units and mixed-gender units. In addition to roles on tanks and in the infantry, Soviet women also became snipers and pilots. More than 1,000 women graduated from the USSR's Central Sniper Training Center, and female snipers were responsible for about 12,000 enemy kills [source: Wagner]. Soviet women also flew as both fighter and bomber pilots.

It's fascinating to see how all these major powers simultaneously began to recognize and tap into the wartime potential of the fairer sex. Thanks to these female units and heroes, the traditional preconceptions about women and their roles on the front line were permanently altered.

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Sources

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