A "Rosie" working on an A-31 Vengeance bomber, Nashville, Tennessee (1943)

World War II

Women in the War: Rising to the Occasion

Women from every corner of America answered the call in myriad ways—serving as chefs, nurses, mechanics, even pilots.

By Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Published May 20, 2020

The outbreak of World War II inspired millions of American men to enlist in the armed forces. The absence of these men on the homefront created an opportunity for formerly excluded groups, such as African Americans, to move into new jobs and industries. The same held true for women, who were actively striving to make a greater contribution to the war effort.

Responding to their desire to serve, in 1941 Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-MA) introduced a bill to create the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), which became a reality the following year. As members of an auxiliary corps—and due to their gender—they received less pay than their male counterparts. Undeterred, these brave women, once mobilized, performed a variety of jobs to serve the cause.

When the WAAC bill expired in 1943, most of its members joined its replacement—the Women’s Army Corps (WAC), which finally equalized pay, rank, and benefits between the sexes. Still, women faced discrimination on the homefront, as a great many men (and more than a few women) scoffed at the very idea of women serving in the military. Nevertheless, they persisted, with WAC women valiantly working in roles ranging from weather forecasters to airplane mechanics to medical and radio technicians. They even served overseas in support roles for combat troops.

Women also served in other branches of the military, most notably with the launch of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in 1942. More than 1,100 female pilots flew in the program, which involved testing advanced bombers and flying planes between factories and bases.

As we mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, let us call to mind the service of these and so many extraordinary women, who, when our democracy was most threatened, answered the call in ways that can inspire us—as we face the profound challenges of our times. May we follow the examples they left for us.

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