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Women and World War II: Women and the Military

Women Serving the War Effort

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World War II nurses of a field hospital in France

Nurses of a field hospital in France

Courtesy U.S. National Archives

Women served in many positions in direct support of military efforts. Military women were excluded from combat positions, but that didn't keep some from being in harm's way -- nurses in or near combat zones or on ships, for instance -- and some were killed.

Many women became nurses, or used their nursing expertise, in the war effort. Some became Red Cross nurses. Others served in military nursing units. About 74,000 women served in the American Army and Navy Nurse Corps in World War II.

Women also served in other military branches, often in traditional "women's work" -- secretarial duties or cleaning, for instance. Others took traditional men's jobs in non-combat work, to free more men for combat.

Figures for women serving with the American military in World War II:

  • Army - 140,000
  • Navy - 100,000
  • Marines - 23,000
  • Coast Guard - 13,000
  • Air Force - 1,000
  • Army and Navy Nurse Corps - 74,000

More than 1,000 women served as pilots associated with the US Air Force in the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) but were considered civil service workers, and weren't recognized for their military service until the 1970s. Britain and the Soviet Union also used significant numbers of women pilots to support their air forces.

As with every war, where there are military bases, there were also prostitutes. Honolulu's "sporting girls" were an interesting case. After Pearl Harbor, some houses of prostitution -- which were then located near the harbor -- served as temporary hospitals, and many of the "girls" came to wherever they were needed to nurse the injured. Under martial law, 1942-1944, prostitutes enjoyed a fair amount of freedom in the city -- more than they'd had before the war under civilian government.

Near many military bases, reputed "victory girls" could be found, willing to engage in sex with military men without charge. Many were younger than 17. Military posters campaigning against venereal disease depicted these "victory girls" as a threat to the Allied military effort -- an example of the old "double standard," blaming the "girls" but not their male partners for the danger.

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