World War II was the first war in which the American military actively recruited women. After Pearl Harbor, the military experienced an almost immediate manpower shortage as it mobilized to fight the war. Although initially reluctant, military leaders realized that they could enlist women for a variety of non-combat roles, which would free up more men to fight on the battlefronts.
By 1943, each branch of service had its own women’s component. The Army had the WAC (Women’s Army Corps). The Navy had the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). The Coast Guard had the SPARS (from the first letters of the Coast Guard Motto, Semper Paratus –Always Ready). Women in the Marine Corps were simply Marines. The only women not to enjoy full military status during the war were the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots), who were civilian contractors to the Army.
Although the military initially intended to use women only for clerical work, as the manpower shortage worsened and women proved themselves to skeptical brass, their roles expanded. Women worked as nurses, radar operators, cryptographers, mechanics, parachute riggers, control tower operators, drivers, instructor pilots, and many other traditionally male jobs. About 400,000 women served in the armed forces during World War II. These veterans demonstrated that women are just as capable as men, and paved the way for women in the military today.
One quarter of American women were at work before the US entered World War II in 1941. By 1945, one third of all women were employed. As men entered the military, the government launched a campaign to recruit women to the workforce, largely to clerical and unskilled manufacturing jobs. Advertising urged women to take up temporary war work in patriotic support of men and emphasized that while they could be able workers like the fictional “Rosie the Riveter,” they could still maintain their femininity. As labor shortages persisted, even mothers with young children were recruited. The Winnetka Community Nursery School was established in 1943 as a day care program for mothers who wanted to contribute to the war effort; tuition: 25¢ per hour. In addition to war-related employment, women in Winnetka worked in traditionally male jobs like gas station attendant, taxi driver, and mail carrier.