The Role of Women in World War II

Written by Leanna Serras

World War II began in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Many of the reasons for the start of this war were due to the outcome of the previous world war from the results of the Treaty of Versailles. The allied forces were fighting against the Axis forces which included Russia, Germany, and Italy. An important factor in the war was the importance of women. Women took over work roles normally held by men and also served as nurses and other positions in the military. Prior to the world wars, the role of women was primarily domestic; however, because of the wars, the role of women changed dramatically. Women during the Second World War were given voluntary and paid work and the role of women expanded further than during World War I.

Women on the Home Front

Life on the home front was very important during World War II as governments were involved with home defense, response to occupation, manpower allocation, air raids, propaganda, and more. Women were an important factor for the economic output at home. Many women began filling roles traditionally held by men in factories and within manufacturing positions. This is known as the Rosie the Riveter movement and women worked in munitions and produced other products. Many women also filled jobs within the federal government and other positions such as salespersons and bank tellers, many positions that were previously held by men. One of the biggest differences in World War II is that women fought for equal pay as they gained confidence. In some instances, it was found that unskilled women performed better than skilled men in the same position. By the end of the war, more than one-third of the workforce was women.

At the home front women took care of rationing and dealing with shortages as they traditionally managed the home and still took care of this role. The additional time used for working and volunteer time made organization very important as women were dealing with many different roles. To deal with rationing women grew more food in gardens, repaired and sewed clothing, and attempted to help raise money for the war effort. There were very few, if any, opportunities for luxury items, such as stocking and perfume. Men, women, and children went without designer and luxury goods, as production shifted to meet the needs of the war effort.

Women as Army Nurses

Another important role of women during the war was as army nurses. More than 59,000 nurses served during WWII. These nurses served on hospital trains, evacuation hospitals, field hospitals, and on medical transport planes. Their role contributed to a very low mortality rate and less than 4 % of those injured died. As with the home front, the role of women expanded in the military. The army granted nurses full retirement privileges, officers, commissions, equal pay, dependent allowances, and education.

Army nurses were transported all over the world serving in the military and many were captured and were prisoners of war; because of the need for competent nurses, the army developed specialized training with specific training schools and programs developed within the US. One difference with new nurses was the need for nurses that dealt with psychiatric patients. Nurses were trained to deal with psychiatric cases as typically one in twelve patients needed psychiatric care.

Women in the Armed Forces

Besides serving as army nurses, many women also served in the armed forces. Many women were pilots in the air force of both the axis and allied powers. Women flew as fighter pilots for the Russian air force and the British air force. Women were not able to fly in battle as part of the American air force but they were used to move planes, transport items, and other non-combat flying. The WASPs or Women's Air Force Service Pilots were formed in 1943.

The US army formed the women's auxiliary army corps in 1941, which was changed in 1943 to the women's army corp. women in the WAC were photo interpreters, mechanics, parachute riggers, radio operators, and trainer instructors. The Navy had the women appointed for volunteer emergency service or WAVES. These women served as did those in the WACs. Women flew planes from factories to military bases as part of the US Air Transport Command, with the women branch known as the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron. At the end of the war as soldiers returned they lobbied for the jobs that were occupied by women during the war, including those positions in the military.