During World War II, the traditional gender division of labor changed, as the "home" or domestic female sphere expanded to include the "home front". Meanwhile, the public sphere—the male domain—was redefined as the international stage of military action.
Working American Women in WWII
The Army established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942, later converted to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) in 1943, and recognized as an official part of the regular army.
More than 150 thousand women served as WACs during the war, and thousands were sent to the European and Pacific theaters; in 1944 WACs landed in Normandy after D-Day. They also served in Australia, New Guinea, and the Philippines in the Pacific. Over 60 thousand Army nurses (all military nurses were female then) served stateside and overseas during World War II. They were kept far from combat, but 67 were captured by the Japanese in the Philippines in 1942 and were held as Prisoners of War (POWs) for over two-and-a-half years. One Army flight nurse was aboard an aircraft that was shot down behind enemy lines in Germany in 1944. She was held as a POW for four months. In 1943, Dr. Margaret Craighill became the first female doctor to become a commissioned officer in the United States Army Medical Corps.
More than 14 thousand Navy nurses served stateside, overseas on hospital ships, and as flight nurses during the war. Five Navy nurses were captured by the Japanese on the island of Guam and held as POWs for five months before being exchanged. A second group of 11 Navy nurses were captured in the Philippines and held for 37 months.
The Navy also recruited women into its Navy Women's Reserve, called Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), starting in 1942. Before the war was over, 84 thousand WAVES filled shore billets in a large variety of jobs in communications, intelligence, supply, medicine, and administration. The Navy refused to accept Japanese-American women throughout World War II. USS HIGBEE (DD-806), a GEARING-class destroyer, was the first warship named for a woman to take part in combat operation. Lenah S. Higbee, the ship's namesake, was the Superintendent of the Navy Nurse Corps from 1911 until 1922.
The Marine Corps created the Marine Corps Women's Reserve in 1943. That year, the first female officer of the United States Marine Corps was commissioned, and the first detachment of female marines was sent to Hawaii for duty in 1945. The first director of the Marine Corps Women's Reserve was Mrs. Ruth Cheney Streeter from Morristown, New Jersey. Captain Anne Lentz was its first commissioned officer, and Private Lucille McClarren its first enlisted woman; both joined in 1943. Marine women served stateside as clerks, cooks, mechanics, drivers, and in a variety of other positions. By the end of World War II, 85 percent of the enlisted personnel assigned to Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps were women.
U.S. Women on the Home Front
U.S. women also performed many kinds of non-military service in organizations such as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), American Red Cross, and the United Service Organizations (USO).
Nineteen million American women filled out the home front labor force, not only as "Rosie the Riveters" in war factory jobs, but also in transportation, agriculture, and office work of every variety. Women joined the federal government in massive numbers during World War II. Nearly a million "government girls" were recruited for war work.
In addition, women volunteers aided the war effort by planting victory gardens, canning produce, selling war bonds, donating blood, salvaging needed commodities, and sending care packages. By the end of the First World War, 24 percent of workers in aviation plants, mainly located along the coasts of the United States, were women and yet this percentage was easily surpassed by the beginning of the Second World War. Mary Anderson, director of the Women's Bureau, U.S. Department of Labor, reported in January 1942 that about 2.8 million women "are now engaged in war work, and that their numbers are expected to double by the end of this year. "
The skills women had acquired through their daily chores proved to be very useful in their new roles throughout the war effort. For example, the pop culture phenomenon of "Rosie the Riveter" made riveting one of the most well-known and common jobs for women at that time. Experts speculate that women were so successful at riveting because it so closely resembled sewing (assembling and seaming together a garment). However, riveting was just one of many jobs that women were learning and mastering as the aviation industry was developing.