As acts of aggression occurred in Europe and Asia in the 1930s, American military and political leaders became concerned about the possibilities of the United States being drawn into war. The staff of U.S. Army general George C. Marshall studied possible ways to include women in military service. Marshall supported Edith Nourse Rogers, a congress person from Massachusetts, when she introduced H.R. 4906 on 28 May 1941 in the 77th Congress. The bill called for the creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) and the establishment of a school to facilitate the training of candidates for officers of the corps. Moreover, the bill stipulated that the first 750 officers were to receive an annual pay of $2000. The Secretary of the Army would determine the appropriate qualifications for entry into the school, and additional volunteers were not to exceed 25,000 women between the ages of 21 to 45. Women in this military service were to fill the needs of the U.S. Army stateside in order to free men for duty overseas.
According to Mattie Treadwell's history of the WAAC, educational and technical qualifications for officers would be set "exceptionally high" to create an "elite corps" who possessed the utmost reputation both in terms of character and professionalism. In October 1941, the leaders of the 21 largest women's organizations in the country came out in support of the Corps. After war was declared against Japan in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt vigorously supported the concept of the Corps. Although it took nearly a year to pass the bill, Rogers, Marshall, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt were key figures, convincing skeptics in Congress to accept women in this new role. In the meantime, Marshall worked with his potential female director, Oveta Culp Hobby, on recruiting plans, training facilities, uniform specifications, and military regulations. As the first director, Hobby, who was a lawyer, former Texas legislator, and a newspaper editor, was the model of propriety and achievement, representing the type of woman the army wished to recruit.
The Congressional Record reveals rancorous opposition to women in the military from representatives of conservative and Southern states. Would men in a military system be willing to work with women or follow the orders of a woman officer? Were women physically and mentally capable of engaging in military operations? Would women be able to live without privacy and comfort for long periods of time? Despite arguments against women serving their country in the military, on 14 May 1942, Congress approved Public Law 554 with a narrow margin in favor and 98 abstentions. In the final days of debate, the need to mobilize for war on two fronts helped some of the congressmen to overcome their traditional views.
A specific type of woman was to be recruited as an officer in the WAAC, one who was older, better educated, and of upstanding character. A total of 35,000 women applied for roughly 1000 slots. By law, female officers were to serve one of several functions as administrators, WAAC training officers, WAAC recruiters, or as WAAC unit leaders. During 1942–1943, these female officers led over 12,000 army women, who trained for diverse positions in the army, including flying instruction and machine gun repair.
Given the opportunity to join the armed forces, thousands of women patriotically volunteered. The women knew they could contribute significantly to ensure a U.S. victory over the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan), which were seeking political hegemony over the democratic world. Besides their motives of patriotism, many women volunteers looked at the armed forces as an organization that could also help them develop technical skills. Further, the women could find adventure while gaining respect from their families and friends. Since they performed the same work as men did in the military in these support roles, these women helped to enlarge the view of an American society in which women could be treated with more equality. The military hierarchy of commanding officers under the Secretary of the Defense noted favorably and repeatedly the qualifications and competence of these women stateside and in all three theaters of warfare.
Over the next four years, there were 350,000 women serving in World War II not only in WAAC, but also as U.S. Marines, nurses, Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), and U.S. Coast Guard SPARS (Semper Paratus
-Always Ready). According to Mary Stremlow, women's military responsibilities and training markedly outweighed their responsibilities or duties at home or in private industries. She argues further that military women had a tremendous impact on the advancement of women's roles. Unlike women who worked in wartime industries, joining the military meant leaving family and community, as well as living in an environment focusing on and fashioned by men.
Women who served in the war gained much from their military experience. Military service during World War II gave many women, and men, the skills needed to suceed in work and professional careers once the war was over. Self-discipline and teamwork were key principles for those who served in the military. Also, women of different ethnic, racial, religious, and geographical backgrounds learned from and about each other. Travel and awareness of a wider world was opened to many thousands of women by their service in Europe, Africa, and the Pacific. Finally, their performance in nontraditional jobs increased their sense of self-worth as they were praised for service to their country.
Meyer, Leisa D. Creating GI Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.; Morden, Bettie. The Women's Army Corps, 1945-1978. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1990.; Poulos, Paula Nassen, ed. A Woman's War Too: U.S. Women in the Military in World War II. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1996.; Treadwell, Mattie E. The Women's Army Corps. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, 1954.; Willenz, June A. Women Veterans: America's Forgotten Heroines. New York: Continuum Press, 1983.