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Definitions and context


World War I Era (view items)

The twentieth century opened with important steps along women’s path to military service: the creation of the Army Nurse Corps in 1901 and Navy Nurse Corps in 1908 and the United States’ involvement in World War I. More than 1,500 had served as civilian nurses during the Spanish-American War from 1898 to 1899, and this service, in conjunction with women’s efforts during the Civil War, created a permanent place for female nurses with the military. While neither army nor navy nurses had military rank, they had become an official and permanent part of the armed forces.

With World War I looming at the beginning at the twentieth century, the military began looking to women to fill new shortages. Woman had already entered the workforce as clerks, typists, factory workers, and telephone operators, and their work in these skilled positions helped lay the foundation for new work with the military. While the army persisted in hiring women as civilians, the enrollment of women in the Naval Reserve and the Coast Guard was authorized in March 1917 to meet their requirements for clerical personnel and radio operators. The Marine Corps followed in 1918.

By the end of World War I, more than 34,000 women had served as yeomanettes or marinettes and in the nurse corps, with more than 10,000 army nurses and Red Cross workers stationed overseas. Women also volunteered with the Salvation Army, the Signal Corps, the YMCA, and the YWCA.

World War II Era (view items)

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 brought the United States into World War II and created openings for women in the military in order to replace men holding noncombat positions and free them to fight. In addition to the nurse corps, women were actively recruited for military branches created specifically for them: the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in May 1942 (in 1943 it became the Women’s Army Corps); the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in July 1942; the U.S. Coast Guard SPARs (from the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus—Always Ready”) in November 1942; and the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve in February 1943. The Cadet Nurse Corps was established in July 1943 to meet the critical need for nurses during wartime. Women could join the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) beginning in August 1943, but they remained civilians.

Approximately 400,000 women, including 5,000 African American women, volunteered in the military and related service organizations, including the American Red Cross and the American Women’s Voluntary Services. In addition to performing clerical work, they became air traffic controllers, mechanics, operators, pilots, and more. Women served admirably in every theater of operation; they served in combat zones, landed on the Normandy beaches just days after 6 June 1944, were held as prisoners of war in the Philippines, conducted undercover operations, and sacrificed their lives.

When the war was over, most women were encouraged to resume their traditional roles as housewife and mother, and only a small number remained in the military in 1946. However, progress was made in the late 1940s to ensure that women would have a regular and permanent place in the military and veterans’ benefits. On 12 June 1948, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed by Congress, shortly before the presidential order directing that the services desegregate. The act placed a two percent ceiling on the number of women in each of the services and restricted the promotions women officers could earn.

Post World War II/Korean War Era (view items)

The role for women in the military remained marginalized in the 1950s due to the draft of men and a cultural climate in America that emphasized femininity and domesticity. When the Korean War began in 1950, women in the armed services numbered only 22,000. Roughly 7,000 of those served in the medical field, with the rest holding line assignments in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC); the U.S. Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service); or the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. Women also served with the Women in the Air Force (WAF), which was established in 1948 when the U.S. Air Force separated from the army. While the Coast Guard SPARs still existed on paper, only about 200 SPARs reenlisted in the 1950s. Women continued to perform a variety of jobs and to serve overseas. Only medical personnel were sent to Korea, but both WAC and WAF were stationed at bases in Japan and the Philippines.

In 1951, the Department of Defense formed DACOWITS (Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service) to provide recommendations on matters relating to women in the armed forces. Among other things, DACOWITS helped launch a nationwide recruiting program for all branches in late 1951 to support the war in Korea. However, the campaign was largely met with disappointing results, and efforts were discontinued in 1952. The number of women in the armed forces did increase during the war, peaking in October 1952 with 48,700. However, when the war ended in 1953, many women left the service. By June 1955 their number had decreased to 35,000, and by the early 1960s it had returned to pre-Korean War figures. The social climate in the United States placed most women in non-professional positions, and this trend limited women’s roles in the military throughout the rest of the decade.

Vietnam War Era (view items)

By the early 1960s, women’s roles in the military had been reduced in significant ways. By 1965, there were only 30,600 women in the armed forces. The continuation of the draft and stricter limitations were partly responsible for this decline. Restrictions went beyond those related to combat, and included higher standards in recruitment as well as policies emphasizing femininity. Training classes no longer included bivouac training or weapons familiarization, but instead emphasized physical appearance. By 1965, nearly 70 percent of women were performing clerical and administrative work, while 20 percent were in medical fields.

However, the continuing Cold War, the increasing U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and other military crises in the mid-1960s created new opportunities and challenges for women. Worsening conditions in Southeast Asia led Congress to pass a bill in 1967 that removed the 2 percent limitation on the number of women in the military and the restriction on their promotion to higher ranks. Women once again served in numerous positions, including communication, supply, administration, intelligence, aircraft maintenance, and air medical evacuation. For the first time since World War II, women other than nurses served in combat theaters in Vietnam as well as on bases in Japan, Korea, and Thailand. These included Women Marines, Women in the Air Force, Red Cross workers, and members of the Women’s Army Corps; most of the women in the navy remained in the United States. By the time U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, approximately 7,000 women had been stationed in country, the majority of them army, navy, and air force nurses.

Traditionally, the end of a military conflict signaled the demobilization of women in the military. Two significant acts in the early 1970s, however--the elimination of the draft and the Congressional passage of the Equal Rights Amendment--led to a permanent expansion of female forces after the Vietnam War.

Post-Vietnam/Panama/Grenada (view items)

The drive for women’s equality and the need to recruit women for an all-volunteer military force combined in the 1970s to produce a major overhaul of service laws and regulations designed to integrate women in the military more completely. The branches began to examine their policies and move toward greater equality in areas such as recruiting, assignments, promotions, and family policies. Women were also gradually integrated into commissioning programs as faculty at service staff colleges, in training courses, and in service academies beginning in 1976. Weapons training became mandatory and only fields related to combat or beyond the physical abilities of most women were closed to them.

By the end of the 1970s, women no longer belonged to separate corps with their own support structures and directors. The Coast Guard Women’s Reserve and the WAVES were assimilated into the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Navy in 1973. The Women in the Air Force was disbanded in 1976; the Women Marines in 1977; and the Women’s Army Corps in 1978. By the end of the 1980s, women composed 11 percent of total military personnel and had served in all of that decade’s military conflicts, including Grenada, Libya, and Panama.

Gulf War Era (view items)
War on Terror/OEF/OIF (view items)

In 1990 and 1991, approximately 40,000 servicewomen deployed to the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and women continued to serve across the globe in peacekeeping and humanitarian missions as well as in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 2003, more than 110 women have been killed in operations in Iraq, and almost 650 have been wounded in action. More than 50 have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and roughly 400 wounded in action. Still, not everyone is ready to accept women in combat roles. Women were officially restricted from many combat jobs until January 2013, but because there were no front lines in in Afghanistan and Iraq, women were directly involved in active fighting.

As of 2017, there were over 200,000 women serving on active duty and they made up over 15 percent of the total military personnel.


Air Force (view items)

The Air Force branch includes women who served in the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), the Women in the Air Force (WAF), the U.S. Air Force, and the Air Force Nurse Corps.

On 5 August 1943, the Women’s Flying Training Detachment and the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron merged into the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The WASP trained in Sweetwater, Texas, and flew bombers, pursuit planes, and jet planes. They ferried aircraft, towed targets for ammunition practice, and trained pilots. WASPs never had military status and the program disbanded in December 1944. However, the Women in the Air Force (WAF) was established in 1948 as an integrated part of the U.S. Air Force. Many of the first 1,500 members had been on duty as Air WACs, members of the Women’s Army Corps serving in the Army Air Forces. In 1949, the Air Force was the first branch to integrate Officer Candidate School. The Air Force Nurse Corps was also established in 1949.

About 13,000 WAF served at home and abroad during the Korean War. They held positions in many aviation specialties, including dispatch, weather observation, and mechanics. Nurses proved critical for aeromedical evacuation, and by 1953, they had helped evacuate approximately 350,000 patients. By the end of the Vietnam War, between 500 and 600 WAFs had served in Vietnam and Thailand. The majority of these women were flight nurses, but WAF were also assigned to roles in administration, personnel, and intelligence.

Female roles in the air force expanded in 1973 with the creation of an all-volunteer force. Women could participate in air force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs in 1969, in pilot training programs in 1976, and were accepted at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1976. By 1989, there were 77,000 women in the air force and 97 percent of jobs were open to them. During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991, air force women flew jet tankers over Iraq and repaired combat aircraft in Saudi Arabia among other jobs. As 2017, over 63,000 women were serving on active duty, comprising almost 20% of the air force.

Army (view all items)

The Army branch includes women who served in the Army Nurse Corps, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women’s Army Corps, the U.S. Army, and the Army Medical Specialist Corps.

The Army Nurse Corps was created on 2 February 1901. More than 21,000 nurses served during World War I, and slightly less than half of them were stationed overseas. Approximately 1,000 women also worked with the army with civilian status as translators and telephone operators. In May 1942, Congress created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). In July 1943, army women were granted military status and the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps. WACs held positions such as weather observer, control tower operator, clerical worker, and lab technician. Approximately 100,000 WACs and more than 56,000 army nurses served in every theatre of operation during World War II.

Approximately 120,000 WACs and nurses served at home and abroad during the Korean War. They worked primarily in personnel and administration, communications, intelligence, and medical and supply units. Approximately 500 nurses served in the war zone with MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units. During the Vietnam War, more than 5,000 nurses fulfilled 12-month tours in country, and small WAC detachments served overseas in administration, personnel, finance, and intelligence. The majority of the 12,000 WACs served in the United States.

Female roles in the army expanded when the all-volunteer force began in 1973. Women began to participate in army ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) programs in 1972 and in 1976 female cadets were accepted at the U.S. Army Military Academy at West Point. In 1978, the WAC formally disbanded. Women soldiers served in the U.S. Army in Grenada in 1983, in Panama in 1989, in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991. As of 2017, there were over 70,000 women serving in active duty, comprising almost 15 percent of the army.

Coast Guard (view all items)

The Coast Guard branch includes women who served in Women’s Reserve of the Coast Guard and the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard was created on 28 January 1915. The 1917 naval policy that allowed women to become yeomanettes was extended to the Coast Guard during World War I, but only a handful of women appear to have served in the branch. However, in November 1942, the Women's Reserve of the Coast Guard was established. The branch became known as the Coast Guard SPARs, the name having been derived from the Coast Guard motto, “Semper Paratus—Always Ready.” Most SPARs served in offices near the coasts and along the Mississippi River, though in 1944 they could also go to Alaska and Hawaii. While a large portion became yeoman and storekeepers, they also served as parachute riggers, Link trainers, boatswains mates, coxswains, radiomen, ship's cooks, and drivers. Approximately 11,000 SPARs served during World War II, but all were discharged by July 1947 when Congress terminated the emergency legislation which had established the SPARS.

In 1949 the Coast Guard established a regular and women’s reserve corps. However, few women served during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, because the Coast Guard did not actively recruit women during either conflict. Female roles in the Coast Guard expanded in 1973 with the creation of an all-volunteer force and the assimilation of the women into the U.S. Coast Guard. Women were admitted to Officer Candidate School and assigned to flight training, and in 1976 females were accepted at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. In the 1980s, women were assigned to sea vessels and commanding cutters. Only a handful of Coast Guard women served in the Persian Gulf during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991. As of 2017, there were almost 5,800 women serving on active duty, comprising almost 15 percent of the Coast Guard.

Marines (view all items)

The Marine Corps branch includes women who served in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve and the U.S. Marine Corps.

In 1918, the Secretary of Navy allowed women to enroll for clerical duty in the Marine Corps, and approximately 300 women enlisted during World War I. The Marine Corps Women's Reserve was established on 13 February 1943, and approximately 20,000 women served in 200 different job categories during World War II. They were known as the Women's Reserve until 1948, when the Women's Armed Services Integration Act established the enlistment and appointment of women in the regular Marine Corps and they became the Women Marines.

Approximately 2,700 Women Marines mobilized for the Korean War. The majority of these women served in personnel and administration, but work in new fields such as intelligence, logistics, instrument repair, electronics, public information, and motor transport were also open to them. During the height of the Vietnam War, there were again approximately 2,700 Women Marines serving in the United States. Only about 40 were stationed in Vietnam between 1967 and 1973.

Female roles in the Marine Corps expanded in 1973 with the creation of an all-volunteer force. Women Marines were accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976 and integrated into officer training in 1977, when females were integrated into the regular corps and the Women Marines officially disbanded. In the 1980s, women were assigned the Fleet Marine Force and given weapons training. Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991 saw more than 1,000 female Marines deployed overseas. As of 2017, there were over 15,000 women serving on active duty, comprising almost 8 percent of the Marine Corps..

Navy (view all items)

The Navy branch includes yeomanettes and women who served in the Navy Nurse Corps, the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), and the U.S. Navy.

The Navy Nurse Corps was established on 12 May 1908. More than 1,500 navy nurses served from 1917 to 1918 in hospitals in the United States and Europe. Women could enlist in the navy as a legitimate part of the military for the first time during World War I. Almost 12,000 yeomanettes served, primarily performing clerical work. On 30 July 1942, the Women's Reserve of the U.S. Naval Reserve or the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) was created. The 86,000 WAVES who served during World War II performed clerical work such as storekeeping and stenography, but also became air traffic controllers, mechanics, and truck drivers. The majority served in the United States, with small numbers going to Hawaii and Alaska in 1944. Approximately 11,000 navy nurses served in hospitals in the United States as well as overseas.

Almost 10,000 WAVES and 3,400 navy nurses served during the Korean War. WAVES continued to hold jobs primarily in administration, personnel, supply, and communications. Nurses stationed overseas served primarily in Japan and on hospital ships. However, by the mid-1960s, there were only about 6,000 WAVES and 2,300 navy nurses. Although WAVES remained in clerical, administrative, and medical fields, only a handful were sent to Vietnam. Several hundred nurses served in country and on hospital ships in Southeast Asia.

Female roles in the navy expanded in 1973 with the creation of an all-volunteer force and the assimilation of the WAVES into the U.S. Navy. Women could participate in Naval ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) in 1972, were accepted at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976, and were sent to more foreign duty stations. In the 1980s, the number of women assigned to sea duty and aviation increased. Approximately 4,400 navy women served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991. As of 2017, there were over 61,000 women serving on active duty, comprising almost 20 percent of the navy.

Extra-military/Cadet Nurse Corps (view all items)

The Cadet Nurse Corps was established by the federal government in June 1943 to support the need for nurses during World War II. Reporting to the United States Public Health Service, the program provided for an accelerated 24 to 30 month curriculum, instead of the traditional 36 months. The Cadet Nurse Corps largely attracted female high school graduates with an interest in nursing, who received free tuition to participating nursing schools and a small stipend. The Cadet Nurse Corps issued military-style dress uniforms and designated ranks, which were determined by amount of training completed. When Cadet Nurses completed their training, they were obligated to serve in a military or civilian hospital until the end of the war. More than 124,000 nurses completed the program, which continued until 1948, and many then went on to join either the Army or Navy Nurse Corps.

Extra-military/Red Cross (view all items)

Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C., on 21 May 1881. Under her leadership, the organization conducted disaster relief programs, assisted the military, and began performing peacetime relief work. During World War I, the Red Cross staffed hospitals and ambulance companies while also running programs that supported civilians. In the years after the war, workers provided relief for major disasters such as the 1927 Mississippi River floods and the Depression in the early 1930s.

Red Cross workers served at home and overseas during World War II. Among the many positions available for paid workers included medical personnel, field directors, recreational workers, nutritionists, social service workers, and office workers. More than 3.5 million women volunteered with the Red Cross at home while approximately 7,000 staffed clubs overseas.

Similar types of services resumed during both the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Red Cross workers provided communication between military personnel and their families, comfort items and kits, counseling, and recreational activities. They set up clubs, canteens, served coffee and doughnuts, and provided entertainment for the troops. The Red Cross also continued blood donation programs. At the peak of the Korean War in 1952, more than 125,000 workers served at home and abroad. During the Vietnam War, approximately 500 workers served there. The Red Cross also provided relief and material assistance to South Vietnam, operated camps for civilian refuges, and supported Operation Babylift and Operation New Life.

Red Cross workers continued to provide relief during times of war, disaster, and peace throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 21st century. They supported Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991, with workers arriving in the Persian Gulf just days after the conflict began; operations in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, Kuwait, and Kosovo; and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Operation Iraqi Freedom saw the largest deployment of Red Cross workers since the first war in the Persian Gulf.

Other (foreign or civilian) (view all items)

The Other (Foreign or Civilian) category includes women who served the country outside of the military and other traditional service organizations during World War II. American civilian workers include women in the Naval Library Service and the Air Transport Command. The category also includes women in foreign service who were members of either the British Royal Air Force or the Women's Auxiliary Air Force in the United Kingdom.

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