The idea of women in Army uniforms has been highly dismissed by many Americans, with many conforming to the notion that a woman’s place would always be in the confines of the home. But with the growing need for manpower from an ever-shrinking pool of candidates, by mid-1943, the Army had resigned its strict policy and finally allowed eligible and capable women across the state to enlist and fill in the much-needed non-combat positions.

Except for nurses who had been serving wounded and sick men during wartime, this was the first time women were allowed within the ranks of the Army, which led to the creation of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).

Civilian Women in the Army

Civilian women have since tended to soldiers during wartime (both in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars), performing duties such as camp followers, cooks, and other chores in the same way they had done for their men during peacetime. However, like nurses, these women do not receive the same recognition and compensation as their counterparts.

Camp Followers
An 1862 photograph of a camp follower with her 31st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

As technology advanced in the early 20th century, new job opportunities arose for women as telephone operators. But instead of direct recruitment, the Army employed civilian women from commercial telephone companies. Known as the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), this group of civilian women served as telephone operators. The first group was hired and dispatched to Paris in early 1918—and these ladies were killing it.

Nonetheless, the Army stuck to its gun and remained gender-restricted despite witnessing the impeccable service of women during the First World War. When the Great Depression ensued in the late 1920s, the adherence to the social ideology of “women staying at home while men went out to work” increased, effectively putting a stop to the burgeoning feminist activities.

Then, World War II happened.

Women-power Filling in Manpower Shortage

At the height of the Second World War, the Army had reached the limits of its eligible men candidates in the country, leaving most of the non-combat positions empty. Meanwhile, the number of eager women who wanted to serve continued to double, especially after the tragedy in Pearl Harbor. They felt the need to help the country too.

US Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts foresaw the possibility of women being needed in the Army again, so she drafted the bill to establish the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in May 1941, modeled after the British Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) branch.

WAC Poster
“Speed them back” WAC promotional poster, 1943. (Image source: Library of Congress)

Rogers witnessed women’s struggles during WWI and vowed that these honorable women would be granted the same rights and benefits as soldiers the next time they’d be called to assist. The following year, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the bill into law, enabling women for the first time to officially enlist in the Army with both the appropriate ranks and salary, though benefits were limited. Shortly after, Oveta Culp Hobby was sworn in as the first director. Immediately, women all over the country submitted their applications, resulting in over 35,000 women being recruited for less than a thousand anticipated positions—pushing the Secretary of War to increase the enlistment limit to 150,000 volunteers.

A strong sense of patriotism urged these women to leave the comforts of their homes and work tirelessly to serve in the Army. The first batch of women arrived at the first WAAC Training Center at Fort Des Moines in Iowa on July 20, 1942. Once basic training is completed, the WAAC officer or enlistee will be assigned to a 150-woman table of organization company, which will offer vacant positions in four fields: baking/cooking, clerical, driving, and medical. Many had also worked in nontraditional jobs such as radio operators, electricians, and air traffic controllers, dispelling doubts about women’s capabilities in the Army.

WAC Recruitment Poster
WAC recruitment posters, 1943. (Image source: Library of Congress)

The recruitment momentum temporarily ceased in mid-1943 due to a massive slander campaign, as well as the rise of high-paying civilian jobs that began opening their doors to women workers, the obvious unequal benefits with men, and the overall attitude within the Army itself.

Women’s Army Corps

Nevertheless, the WAAC thrived. The “auxiliary” designation was eventually dropped and became a substantial branch in the Army, earning “equal rank, privilege, and benefits” from their male counterparts, subsequently permitting women to be deployed overseas and support combat troops. In addition, WAC officers were the first to be authorized to wear officer’s insignia, a privilege that wasn’t granted to the Army Nursing Corps until the mid-1940s.

After World War II ended, more than 150,000 women were reported to bravely serve and pioneered the WAC “most gladly and without regret,” which created a permanent place not just in the Army but in other military branches as well.

Women in Army Aviation
Women in Army Aviation. (US Air National Guard photo by Master Sgt. Matt Hecht/DVIDS)

WAC remained separate from the Regular Army until 1978 when the former was integrated into the latter, while thousands of WAAC/WAC veterans would later receive their veterans’ benefits. In 2015, the longest-serving female in the Army, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Jeanne Y. Pace, retired after four decades of service. Pace was also the last active soldier who used to be a WAC member.

“My most lethal weapon in basic was an iron,” she said in an interview. “When I think about the past 43 years and see all the changes, it’s pretty amazing. The Army’s leading the way, and now women have so many more opportunities.”

Indeed, women in the Army have come a long way and broken down many stereotypes, providing a career option for those who feel called to serve, especially when national security and democratic principle and ideal are at stake.