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Fact Sheet

WAC Detachment Members with Military Mules

Members of the WAC Detachment Shown with Military Mules

This information provides many of the details surrounding women's military lives and service during World War II. Historian Susan Hartmann is useful and of particular interest in assessing what women did in the military and what justifications were used for the deployment of women.

Source: Susan Hartmann, The Home Front and Beyond: American Women in the 1940s (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982).

Women served in:

  • WAAC/WAC about 140,000.
  • WAVES about 100,000.
  • Marine Corps Women's Reserve (MCWR) about 23,000 SPARS.
  • Coast Guard about 13,000.
  • Army Nurse Corps (ANC) about 60,000.
  • Navy Nurse Corps (NNC) 14,000.
  • Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASPS) about 1,000. These women held civilian status, were all white, made less money than male counterparts, and could not fly in the cockpit with men. The WASPs were terminated in 1944, and it was not until 1977 that Congress granted the WASPS veteran status.

Why women were able to serve:

  • Manpower shortage.
  • The nature of war had become transformed.
  • Military technology meant fewer soldiers were engaged in battle. This is illustrated by the fact that approximately 25% of all soldiers never left the U.S., and only 1/8 of the soldiers ever saw combat.
  • Increasing civilian nature of many duties. Ten percent of military personnel were involved in clerical and administrative duties. These were activities performed by women in the civilian labor force. There was a general belief that women were more dexterous than men and had a greater ability to perform repetitive, monotonous tasks.
  • Women role in the military was a result of military need and pressure from influential women.

Black women:

  • In the WAAC from the start - 10% of the 1st group of WAACs
  • Segregated units and facilities
  • Were not in the WAVES until 1944 - then only due to a Presidential order


  • WACs could be married, but this was later changed.
  • Could not have children under 14 years of age
  • Only received benefits for dependents if she proved she was the family's main means of support

New elements in World War II:

  • Women participated in every activity except combat.
  • Women gained permanent, regular status in the military.

Women in the Military:

  • Experienced how war challenged traditional sex roles.
  • Experienced the tenacity of traditional sex roles. The power of sex role stereotyping was shown in attitudes, expectations, and the types of work performed by the women.

Gender issues:

  • Struggle against the simultaneous trivialization and glamorization of women's military service.
  • Difficulty in getting the WACs referred to as women or soldiers - not girls.
  • Media newsreels stressed glamor and trivial elements.
  • Women leaders worked for recognition and dignity for women in the military. They were realistic in determining that the U.S. was not ready to accept too much deviation in roles for military women.
  • Public relations emphasized women in military not loose their femininity. Women were shown "only performing the duties that women would ordinarily do in civilian life."

Mixed messages:

  • Emphasis on femininity and personal elements of the war. Recruiting materials emphasized themes like enlist and bring your sweetheart home sooner predominated.
  • "A Woman's war, too." Wartime necessity required an expanded range of roles for women in the military. Images of women repairing motor vehicles appeared with the underlying message that this was for the duration of the war.


  • Women's work in military paralleled that in the general labor force
  • Few trained in "men's work"
  • Most in office, communications, and health care
  • WAACs/WACs went overseas from the beginning
  • WAVES did not go overseas until 1944

Social Regulations:

  • Within the WAC, but not the WAVES, social relations between officers and enlisted personnel were prohibited


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