99 years ago this week, the U.S. officially entered World War I. While the U.S. did not suffer the same number of casualties of the other combatants (France lost over 1 million of its men, for example), our participation in the Great War had significant effects. Not only did our entry into World War I break with our traditional policy of neutrality (established by President George Washington in 1793), but it also broke another policy, that of keeping women out of the U.S. military.
Until 1917, women were not encouraged to actively participate in war. Yes, there were isolated incidents of women masquerading as men in order to fight, but women’s participation was largely limited to nursing duties, and only through private groups such as the Red Cross, or, during the Civil War, the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which established military hospitals in the North. Women were considered too delicate to serve in the military or be near the fighting.
However, by 1917, the suffrage movement was growing in the U.S., and women were entering the workforce in larger numbers than ever before. Many women were not content to plant Victory Gardens, knit socks, or drive ambulances for the Red Cross in Europe. Ironically, while hundreds of women were eager to serve in the military, the U.S. government was having trouble recruiting young men to serve (despite what we’ve been led to believe, World War I was not a popular war here in the U.S.) By June of 1917, Congress had to establish the Selective Service System to draft men to serve, but the U.S. Army was concerned that there would still be shortages of fighting men. The Army’s solution? Use women in certain clerical or support jobs, thus freeing up male soldiers to fight.
By 1918, the Army’s Signal Corps had 230 female, bilingual telephone operators in France, near the front. Nicknamed “Hello Girls”, these young women were essential to relaying orders and tracking supply convoys.
Other women served in the U.S. Army as translators and drivers. Women also served in uniform here in the U.S. at army bases or in Washington, D.C., where many of them were cryptologists – code breakers.
The Navy and Marines also recruited women, but only as nurses – and without rank.
Over 30,000 American women served in the Navy, Marines, Army, and Coast Guard. When the war ended, it was obvious to many political leaders – including President Woodrow Wilson – that women were more than capable of voting!
Women played an even larger role in World War II, not only serving in the same capacities as earlier, but also as pilots. In order to free up male pilots to fly in Europe and the Pacific, in 1942, the U.S. Army Air Force created a unit called the Women Airforce Service Pilots – WASPS.
By the end of 1944, when the program was disbanded, over 1100 young women, all volunteers, had flown nearly every type of military aircraft, ferrying planes from defense plants to military bases and airports around the country and even overseas. This was dangerous work: there were strict deadlines to meet for delivery, and some of the aircraft was experimental. The WASPS tested new planes and equipment (such as parachutes), and also towed targets at military bases, where military trainees used live ammunition. 38 women lost their lives during their service.
When the female pilots were recruited, the Army told them they would eventually be granted military rank; however, this ideas proved politically unpopular with conservative members of Congress, so the WASPS remained civilians, and would not be granted military status until the 1970s.
Women’s participation in the military has since expanded, and last month the Army appointed a woman to command a combat unit for the first time. As new technologies have changed the nature of modern warfare, so too women’s role in defending our nation continues to change.