Rosie the Riveter perhaps is the most well-known symbol of women in America during World War II. Used as a recruitment tool, she encouraged women to flock to the workforce to support the war efforts, especially in the munitions industry.
Less familiar in modern times are the 350,000 women who swore an oath and put on a uniform for this country. Not only did these women contribute to the war efforts of World War II, but they also were trailblazers for today’s women in the military.
“The women who served had tremendous influence over women serving in the military in years afterward and even through today,” says Brig. Gen. Wilma A. Vaught, USAF (Ret.), president emeritus of the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation Inc., Arlington, Va. “If there hadn’t been women in World War II and had they not done as well as they did, I’m not sure we would have women in the military today. They performed superbly.”
From that service came legislation that authorized women to be members of the military. Prior to the WWII, women were in the reserve only rather than having the same status as men. “That brought about the legislation we largely live by today that made us part of the military,” she says.
Brig. Gen. Vaught attributes much of her 28-year military career success to these women. When she joined the military in 1957, she initially was assigned with some WWII women veterans. “I learned so much from them about what service was like and what they had to do to survive. That experience helped me through my whole career,” she says. “Making brigadier general came in large part because of what I’d learned from the very beginning from the WWII veterans who were still serving.”
Women busted all stereotypes. They worked on aircrafts. They worked on motor vehicles. They filled as many positions as they could, and they excelled. “There were things women had never done before that they not only did, they did better than the men who were doing it. In some cases where they put women where men had been, they were able to put 50 percent the number of people in there. It was an amazing revelation of what women were capable of doing.
“Women became aware they could compete and work with men,” she continues. “It allowed women to move forward as women in industry, communities and politics – any aspect you can think of. It had an influence.”
The war also led to women receiving better education. Nurses in particular benefited.
“They got to use equipment they never would have had an opportunity to use and got to treat diseases they never would have had an opportunity to treat.” Not that that made war good, but the experiences gained undeniably helped propel the profession forward. “It professionalized nursing because they learned the way to be the right kind of nurse,” Brig. Gen. Vaught says. Other women took advantage of the GI Bill, many of whom went on to become teachers.
Among the biggest impacts for women?
“It gave something women they really hadn’t had before: the satisfaction and pride that they had done something for their country,” says Brig. Gen. Vaught. “They had offered to give up their lives if need be. That pride by and large stayed with them until the day they died. The tremendous pride of having served their country and being a veteran.”
Meet women who served in each of the branches:
The WASP Aviators (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots): Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) had obtained their pilot’s license prior to the war. These women ferried planes from factories to bases, transported cargo and participated in simulating target missions. WASPs’ efforts freed thousands of male pilots for active duty. The more than 1,000 WASPs tallied more than 60 million miles in flight distance; 38 women lost their lives in the service. It wasn’t until 1977 that President Jimmy Carter signed a bill giving WASPs official military status; until then they had been considered civil service employees.
“The contribution of the women of America, whether on the farm or in the factory or in uniform, to D-Day was a sine qua non of the invasion effort.”
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