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Women in the Military

Motor Pool and Transport WACs

By the time World War II began, women had already established a respectable record of military service. Congress established the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908. Nursing paved the way for women in the military, where they held the insignia of rank, yet lacked full military status. In World War I, approximately 34,000 women served as nurses in the various branches, and in 1917, in an unprecedented move, the Navy Department authorized women to be in the Naval Reserve. The overwhelming sentiment in the War Department was that women should not be in the military, consequently, since they controlled the Army, women would not make comparable advances into that branch of service.

With the outbreak of World War II, the government and military were slow to recognize the potential value of women in the armed forces. The incentive to create a Women's Auxiliary Army Corps came from Massachusetts Congressional Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, who introduced the WAAC bill in May, 1941. Yet action was not taken until after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Much of the opposition to women in the military was based on traditional notions of women's place being the home, the image of the military as a masculine preserve, and fears that admission to the military would lead to the possibility of women in combat.

The wartime demands rapidly escalated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. As the war manpower crisis increased, the importance of women's potential contributions to the war effort became apparent. The movement to create the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps garnered support from influential women and women's organizations, which asserted that women had the right to exercise all the responsibilities of citizenship, including military service. The increasing demand for military personnel overcame resistance to women in the military, and military officials realized that WAACs could free men for combat duty. The WAAC bill passed Congress on March 15, 1942.

The Navy experienced a similar "manpower" shortage after the battles of Coral Sea and Midway. On July 30, 1942, the Women's Naval Reserve Act passed Congress creating the WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, and the Marine Corp Women's Reserve. There was one significant difference between the WAACs and the WAVES; the WAVES from their creation were in the Navy, not considered an auxiliary.


Members of the WAC Detachment - Camp Hale, Colorado 

While the majority of American women mobilized for World War II worked in the industrial sector, the military proved to be an attractive alternative. More than 140,000 women served in the Women's Army Corps and another 60,000 in the Army Nurse Corps. There were 100,000 Navy Waves and 14,000 members of the Navy Nurse Corps. Approximately 23,000 women served in the Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR) with close to 13,000 in the Coast Guard (SPARS). Women Air Service Pilots, about 1,000 strong, flew more than 60 million miles in just under three years. Classified as civilians, women pilots could not fly with men in the cockpit and made less money than their male counterparts. Altogether, more than 400,000 women served in the United States Military during World War II, filling a critical need.

Auxiliary status was not a viable solution for either the Army or the WAAC enlistees. The women were not regular Army, yet they performed Army jobs. They went overseas, but did not have the same benefits as members of the Army if injured. The WAAC volunteers experienced unequal pay, had no entitlements for dependents, lacked military rank, and were aware that their counterparts in the NAVY were regular military. The solution came in 1943 with passage of the Women's Army Corps Bill. Signed into law on July 1, 1943, the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and the women gained full military status. The transition from the WAAC to the WAC was known as the conversion and the enlistees were given the choice of joining the WAC or returning home.




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