Should Women Be Allowed to Enlist in Armed Forces?

Looking back at the vital role they played during World War II, America debated in 1947 if women should now become an essential part of the armed forces.

Background: Before the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a few thousand women served in the Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps. As the country mobilized for the war, women were at first not recruited, but it soon became apparent that their participation was necessary to win the war as they could take over noncombatant jobs and free men for combat. It still took a lot of debate and persuasion before Congress passed the Edith Nourse Rogers's bill enabling the creation of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May 1942. The Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps eventually admitted women in July 1942, November 1942, and February 1943, respectively.

Over 350,000 women served in the US armed forces during World War II in the following branches of services: Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (later the Women's Army Corps or WAC), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), and the Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (WAVES), a unit of the US Naval Reserve. They also served in the US Coast Guard (USCG) Women's Reserve (SPARS) and the Marine Women’s Reserve.

Close to 70% of these enlisted women held traditionally "female" jobs such as typists, clerks, and mail sorters, playing a vital part in maintaining the bureaucratic mechanisms necessary during war. In addition, they drove trucks and jeeps, dug ditches, rigged parachutes, worked on machinery, in munitions production as electricians, mechanics and even taught navigation. Women towed gunnery targets, transported equipment and non-flying personnel, and flight-tested repaired aircraft. Their duties included everything from patching bullet holes in a naval boat to performing engine checks on a seaplane, working in control tower operations and in the cryptologic field.

While women were not permitted to participate in combat, many worked very close to the front, suffered injuries and in some cases died. Although they experienced discrimination for their choice, both at home and in the armed forces, women proudly served. 657 WACs were honored with medals and citations for outstanding service.

How do you think the average American responded to this July 1947 poll about allowing women to enlist in the armed forces?

Results:

What happened:

The participation of women in the United States Armed Forces was thought to be temporary. As in the war industries, women, often unwillingly, left the armed forces after the war as many of the above organizations were dissolved at the end of the war.

Some leaders, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, believed that there was a permanent place for women in the service. Congress eventually passed legislation PL 80-625, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948. While it allowed women as permanent members of the armed forces, the law severely limited their roles and opportunities.

It would take a few additional decades for the different branches to fully integrate women and for their work and sacrifice during WWII to be fully recognized. In the late 1970s, many opposed new legislation that would give women, active in the military during WWII, military recognition or veteran status which would enable them to benefit from the GI Bill.

Not until 1978 did the Army abolish the WAC and fully subsume women into the Regular Army and WASP members had to wait until 2009 to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal.

In 2018, of the 1.3 million active duty personnel, 213,851 were women, about 16 percent of the total force.

Thumbnail

Public opinion polls give us unique insight into America in the WWII era. Each week, historians from the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy work with the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University to explore what Americans believed and how they felt about events and people related to the WWII years.

Read more polls
Contributor

Christelle Le Faucheur

Christelle Le Faucher, PhD, is a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. She came to the Institute in 201...
Learn More