Women in the U.S. Military: World War I & II

WWI U.S. Navy Yeomanettes

World War I

Women supported the war effort in 1917 by selling war bonds and conserving food. Women also worked for the American Red Cross and the United Service Organizations, as well as in factory, office and transportation jobs. Over 12,000 American women served stateside “freeing the men to fight.” At the end of World War I 24% of aviation plant workers were women. The General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC) established the Overseas Service Unit, which consisted of 100 women who went to Europe to assist wounded soldiers after World War I had ended.

Women in the U.S. Military: World War I & II
U.S. Navy Recruitment Poster | Artist: Howard Chandler Christy

From 1901 until 1917, women were only allowed to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces as nurses, and though they wore uniforms they were considered civilian employees who were eligible for very few benefits. They were denied ranks and insignia, as well as retirement and disability pensions.

Loretta P. Walsh
Loretta P. Walsh

The United States declared war in early 1917 after 15 Americans died when German U-boats attacked four American ships. Many Americans were inspired to step up and serve including 20-year old Loretta Perfectus Walsh who became the first American woman to officially serve in the U.S. Armed Forces when she enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves on March 17, 1917. A few days later she was sworn in as a Chief Yeoman — or yeomanettes as they were sometimes referred to — and charged with mostly clerical duties and eventually achieved the rank of chief petty officer.

By the end of the war in November, 1918, there were over 11,000 World War I female yeomen and 300 marinettes in the U.S. Marine Corps who received the same benefits, responsibilities and pay grades as their male counterparts. Both men and women earned $28.75 per month — a rare occurrence of equal pay for both genders. The military began to draw-down and most of the yeomanettes were discharged from active duty. Loretta continued her reserve status and was able to draw a small salary until the end of her four-year enlistment. In 1918 she the influenza virus during the pandemic, and though she managed to recuperate, she never regained her full health and died from tuberculosis at the tender age of 29. Loretta P. Walsh is buried in Blakely, Pennsylvania. Her tombstone reads:

Loretta Perfectus Walsh
April 22, 1896 — August 6,1925
Woman and Patriot
First of those enrolled in the United States Naval Service
World War 1917–1917
Her comrades dedicate this monument to keep alive forever
memories of the sacrifice and devotion of womanhood

Over 400 women died as a result of their World War I service.

World War II

Nurse Verona Savinski, 802nd Medical Evacuation Transport Squad

Beginning in December 1941, approximately 350,000 American women served in the United States military, both at home and abroad. These women had their own military branches including the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), the Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (WAVES), and a branch of the U.S. Coast Guard known as SPARS.

Nearly seventy percent of these women held clerical jobs such as typists, clerks and mail sorters. Though these jobs were less glorified than those of the men fighting on the front lines, women were essential in maintaining the bureaucratic mechanisms that are necessary in warfare. Also, more men were made available to fight, because women filled the office jobs that were previously held by men, just as they did during World War I.

The Army had over 60,000 nurses serving stateside and overseas. Though women were not allowed to participate in combat, their duties often brought them close to the front lines. Women in the Army and Navy medical corps were often exposed to dangerous conditions. The Japanese captured 67 Army nurses in the Philippines in 1942 and held them prisoner for over two and a half years. In total, 88 female military nurses were held prisoners of war and more than 460 women lost their lives during World War II.

President Harry Truman signs the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948

Women finally received permanent military status when the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act was passed in 1948. This law allowed women to serve as permanent members of all the United States Armed Forces.

(L-R) Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPS) leaving their B-17 at Lockbourne AFB in Ohio | Army nurses stationed in Australia
(L-R) Air Force engineering test pilots in front of a B-25 plane | U.S. Army nurse Lieutenant Florie E. Gant tending a prisoner-of-war patient, England, UK, October 1944
(L-R) Army nurses at a field hospital in France | Major Charity Adams & Captain Abbie Campbell inspect WACs in England, February 1945
(L-R) Women war correspondents in Europe, February 1943 | Two flight nurses during training in Hawaii, May 1944

If you are a Woman Veteran who would like to share her story, please contact Monica Brown, the Program Coordinator for the VLB Voices of Veterans Oral History Program at monica.brown@glo.texas.gov or call the Texas Veterans Land Board (VLB) at 1–800–252-VETS (8387). If you are a Woman Veteran in Texas looking for assistance with employment, health care, VA pension claims, education or anything else, please contact the Women Veterans Program at the Texas Veterans Commission (TVC).

Read the first blog post in this series: Women in the U.S. Military: American Revolution to the Spanish-American War