Women in the military: Making waves since WWI

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(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown)
This article by Amanda Huffman was originally published by We Are the Mighty

The history and role of military women throughout the years is fascinating. And with March being Women’s History Month, we decided to dive in and take a look back at the role women have played in the U.S. military from WWI to the present day.

World War I

Many people know that women were part of WWI, but did you know about the women who worked as switchboard operators? The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit had to be bilingual, speaking in both French and English to ensure orders were heard by everyone. Over 7,000 women applied, but only 450 were accepted and even though they wore Army Uniforms and were subject to Army Regulations they were not given honorable discharges. Grace Banker was one of these women. She led a team of 38 women and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her service.

World War II

During WWII, over 350,000 women served in the U.S. Armed Forces. And while many women worked as nurses, secretaries and telephone operators, there were several other jobs that women filled. The two most influential groups were the Women Armed Service Pilots (WASP) and Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)

Women Armed Service Pilots (WASP)

Women were called up to serve as pilots during World War II to allow men to serve on the front lines overseas. While these women were promised military status, they joined before the final law was passed and, in the end, served as civilians and were not given veteran status until years later. During the time of the program, WASP flew over 60 million miles, transported every type of military aircraft, towed targets for live anti-aircraft training, simulated missions and transported cargo.

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES)

This program authorized the U.S. Navy to accept women into the Naval Reserve as commissioned officers and enlisted troops. The purpose of the legislation was to release officers and men for sea duty and replace them with women on shore establishments. The first director of the WAVES was Mildred H. McAfee. The WAVES served at 900 stations in the U.S. The WAVES peak strength was 86,291 members. Many female officers entered fields previously held by men, such as engineering and medicine. Enlisted women served in jobs from clerical to parachute riggers.

In 1948, the role and future of military women changed. The Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act of 1948 granted women permanent status in the Regular and Reserve forces of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and newly created Air Force.

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