World War II WAVES Recruiting Poster

Original content by: Dr. Paul Goodwin

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About This Artifact

During World War II, the demands on manpower resulted in the recruitment of women to serve in an auxiliary capacity in the Armed Forces. Despite strong feelings in the Navy that there was little use for women in uniform, House of Representative members Edith Nourse Rogers and Margaret Chase Smith, together with Eleanor Roosevelt, fought hard to secure congressional approval. President Roosevelt signed the bill to create the Women’s Reserve of the Naval Reserve. The WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) were established in August, 1942. Recruitment began immediately. Mildred McAfee was appointed Director of the WAVES and, significantly, was the first female commissioned officer in US Navy history with the rank of Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander. Within a year more than 27,000 women wore the WAVES uniform.

Although many recruits were assigned to traditional female jobs as secretaries and clerks, thousands more moved into positions held by men. They performed duties related to aviation, the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, medicine, communications, intelligence, science and technology. Their service was initially restricted to the continental United States, though later, some served in Hawaii. They were prohibited from serving on board combat vessels or aircraft. By war’s end, the WAVES counted 8,000 officers and 80,000 enlisted women personnel.

In 1948, passage of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act incorporated women into the armed forces as regular members, as opposed to emergency personnel. With this legislation, the WAVES formally ceased to exist, although the acronym persisted for several decades.

They were glamorized by Hollywood in the 1944 film Here Come the WAVES, starring Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. In what ways did women’s military service during WWII further women’s rights after the war?
  2. How do you suppose men felt about women appointed to positions usually held by men?
  3. What roles do women now play in the armed forces?