Their War Too: U.S. Women in the Military During WWII. Part I

March is Women’s History Month, a great time to highlight  important contributions made to our country by women. This year, we are focusing on the role women played in the United States Military during World War II in a two-part blog post. Part I  highlights recruitment films from the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARS), and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). Part II will highlight films from the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).

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During World War II, women’s service to their country was not limited to the factory floor.  It is true that millions of women were hired to work in factories and thousands were hired to work on farms through the Women’s Land Army program, but their options did not end there. The size of the global conflict was unprecedented and once the United States entered the war, its citizens had to mobilize quickly. The sheer volume of people needed called for the expansion of the role of women. Because of these factors, the roles women played during World War II far surpassed their involvement during previous conflicts. They were recruited for service in the United States military for the first time.

After Pearl Harbor,women signed up for the armed services by the hundreds of thousands; their numbers totaling approximately 350,000 by war’s end. They served in each branch of the military in separate units. The Army established the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), the Marines Corps created the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve, the Coast Guard’s Women’s Reserve were known as the SPARS, and the Navy recruited women into its reserve known as the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES). Another group of women served the military but were not recognized as service members during the war. This group, the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), served in the Army Air Corps.

Enlistment was not limited to white women, women of color were also allowed to enlist and were vital to the success of females in the military. A total of 6,520 African American women served in the military during the war as well as an estimated 200 Asian American women. These women faced additional barriers such as limited recruitment numbers – kept to 10 percent – and segregation. They were generally not portrayed in recruitment films of the era and do not show up in any of the films below. Later films from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts do include women of color but during World War II, the topic of race was generally avoided. Still, women of color were determined to serve and contributed a great deal to the cause.

Since women were to play a vital part in the war effort, it was extremely important to have the public’s support. They were to serve in non-traditional roles, which could be viewed as a threat to “traditional values” enforced since the Victorian Era. The government took to propaganda-type films to ensure the public that these opportunities were vital and would not disrupt the general order of society. These films were also used to recruit women, working to make them feel comfortable with the idea of joining the military and stress the importance of their role. The tactics used by the U.S. Government can be seen in the clips below.

 Femininity

It was assumed that women would value their feminine characteristics over the war effort and great lengths were taken to address that assumption and reassure women they would not lose their “femininity” by participating in what was generally seen as the “man’s sphere.” The word “girls” is used instead of women, the narrator talks about nail polish, makeup and their “pretty little arms,” a recruit still needs a man’s help trying to complete a chin-up, and a quick clothing change allows the women to return to their feminine ways.

 

It is worth noting that Leonora Anderson (Lonnie Anderson “the little blond”) went on to become a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force. She and several WASP members fought to have their contributions recognized as military service. Because of them, former WASP’s are now allowed to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

 

Benefits of Joining the Military

Another tactic used to recruit women for military service was to explain all of the benefits of the job, specifically the large variety of careers to choose from. Whether a woman wanted to become a secretary, switchboard operator or air traffic controller there was an opportunity to do so. Other benefits highlighted are the payment of all recruits, equal pay with their male counterparts, special discounts on trains and at movie theaters, and job training they could use in the civilian world. Women were also reassured that benefits included being able to style their hair and wear makeup.

Doing important work

The importance of work needing to be done by women was also highlighted in recruitment films. The idea that more men were needed on the front lines and women were doing the right thing by filling their vacancies was repeated again and again. Even though their jobs may not require direct contact with the enemy such as torpedoing an enemy submarine, the war could not be fought and won without them.

Women were also reminded from time to time that while their options were vast, they were also limited. A female could not be a doctor but she could serve as a nurse, or, as is stated in the clip below, a woman could not become an admiral but she could be the admiral’s secretary.

These films serve as a reminder of the accomplishments of women in the military during WWII as well as the barriers they faced when pushing against societal norms. Their jobs were no less vital to the war effort than those of their male counterparts. Many women faced scrutiny from their families and the public for wanting to join the military, but they saw the importance of doing so. It is because of these women, that women today have the opportunities they do in the military.

Each recruitment film highlighted in this post can be viewed in its entirety below.

It’s Your War, Too

Coast Guard SPARS

Army-Navy Screen Magazine

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