“Women Must Be Given Permanent Status:” Gender Integration in the U.S. Navy

By Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

By the end of World War II in 1945, more than 350,000 women served across all branches of the United States military.1 They had been accepted into service due to the emergent need of the war. But now that the war was over, many Americans expected these female veterans would return to more traditional women’s roles. Rosie the Riveter and her sisters had other ideas. In the years immediately following peace, women (and some men!) across the country advocated for permanent military status for women.

It’s Our Navy, Too

Although a good number of the female veterans were ready to say goodbye to military service after the war, there were those who wished to remain. The Navy, and other branches of service, gave these women skills outside the home and expanded their worlds beyond their hometowns. For many women, saying goodbye to those opportunities was unthinkable. Despite difficulties they may have faced, such as sexual harassment and discrimination, these women recognized the contributions of their skills and the opportunities military service presented. Unlike many of their foremothers, military service afforded these women financial independence for themselves and their children. With these reasons in mind, a portion of World War II’s female veterans prepared for a new fight, this time to cement their place in the military.

Four WAVES Aviation Machinist’s Mates work on a SNJ training plane at Naval Air Station Jacksonville (Florida), circa 1943. WAVES served in a wide variety of Navy rates during the war and were especially instrumental in naval aviation. Courtesy of the National Archives.

It would be an uphill battle. When some female veterans expressed disillusionment with Congress ever making women permanent members of the military, [Army] WAC Captain Mary Hallaren bolstered her fellow service members, saying, “Breaking the trail has always been harder than following it.”2 Leaders like Captain Hallaren and her sisters in the Navy WAVES encouraged their fellow female service members to stay the course and advocated on women’s behalf in front of the top brass and Congress.

Support from Within

Opinion within the military was divided on whether or not women should remain in service during peacetime. With thousands of women discharged in the year following the war’s end, some members of the military recognized the severe impact this had on administrative, and other, duties. By spring of 1946, the impact of losing so many women was being felt across the Navy. “From virtually every corner of the Navy Department clear messages were coming that the numbers of women needed, and the value placed upon their performance, made it no longer wise or feasible to rely on temporary, stopgap extensions [to the WAVES].”3 As early as 1946, the Navy tasked WAVES Commander Joy Bright Hancock with investigating the need for women as permanent members of the Navy. Commander Hancock found there was still a need for women. As a result of the survey, Commander Hancock recommended 1,400 officers and 9,500 enlisted women for the post-war Navy.4 Hancock’s findings were handed over to the House of Representatives Naval Affairs Committee, where legislators spent the next two years duking it out over a proposed integration bill.

In addition to Commander Hancock, the bill was supported by Navy heavy hitters Rear Admiral Thomas Sprague, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Vice Admiral Donald Duncan. During his testimony to the Senate in 1947, Admiral Nimitz declared, “It is considered opinion of the Navy Department and my own personal belief that the services of women are needed. Their skills are as important to the efficient operation of the Naval Establishment during peacetime as they were during the war years… The WAVES are no longer an experiment. They have become an integral part of the Navy.”5

Secretary of Defense James Forrestal (center) congratulates Colonel Geraldine May, Colonel Mary Hallaren, Captain Joy Bright Hancock, and Major Julia Hamblet after the passage of the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act, 1948. Courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Congressional Pressure

The initial proposal to the House Naval Affairs Committee failed, but key legislators worked to push foward the Women’s Armed Forces Integration Act. At its helm was Maine Represenative Margaret Chase Smith, a women well known as a major proponent of female military service and a force to be reckoned with. During World War II, Smith was appointed to the House Naval Affairs Committee. While in this position, Smith became known as the “Mother of the WAVES” for introducing legislation to create the Navy’s female branch. In addition to spearheading the creation of the WAVES, Smith also lobbied for and won overseas assignments for WAVES, allowances for females’ dependents, and an increase in rank to Captain for female officers.6 With all of this under her belt, Smith was an ideal candidate for pushing through the integration proposal.

Maine Congresswoman Margaret Chase Smith views an airshow with Admiral Chester Nimitz aboard USS Saratoga (CV 3) in 1944. Later Smith and Nimitz would advocate together for permanent status of women in the United States military. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Working with Commander Hancock, Admiral Sprague, and other Navy officers, Smith first brought the bill to the House floor in July 1947. She argued, “The issue is simple – either the armed services have a permanent need of women officers and enlisted women or they do not. If they do, then women must be given permanent status.”7 Despite the fervent support from officers like Admiral Nimitz, the full Armed Services Committee initially rejected the bill in March 1948. Representative Smith was the sole vote in favor. Undaunted, Smith brought the bill to the floor again in April of that year, where it was again rejected. However, this time the vote was much closer – fifty-four to forty-two. Still determined, Smith contacted Secretary of Defense James Forrestal, who in turn expressed approval and changed the minds of several committee members.8 Finally, on June 12, 1948, the House and Senate approved the bill. President Truman signed it into law six weeks later on July 30.

This July, we recognize the work done by WAVES and WAC leaders, Congresspeople like Margaret Chase Smith, and the thousands of women who served during WWII and beyond. Their service and dedication to integration led to today’s fully gender integrated Navy. Today’s sailors can now look back on seventy-five years of permanent female service, and prepare for another seventy-five to come.


  1. “It’s Your War, Too: Women in World War II,” National World War II Museum, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/its-your-war-too-women-world-war-ii.
  2. “Mary A. Hallaren,” National Museum of the United States Army, https://www.thenmusa.org/biographies/mary-a-hallaren/.
  3. Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Talihook. (New York: Maxwell Macmilian Company, 1993) 89.
  4. Travis Riley, “The WAVES: An Inspiration for the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act,” University of Rhode Island, 2008.
  5. U.S. Senate, Committee on the Armed Services, Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1947, 80th Congress, 1st sess., 1947.
  6. “House Passes the Smith Bill for WAVES Overseas Service,” The New York Times, 8 June 1943, https://www.nytimes.com/1943/06/09/archives/house-passes-the-smith-bill-for-waves-overseas-service.html.
  7. Margaret Chase Smith, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, 6 April 1948.
  8. Margaret Chase Smith, Declaration of Conscience (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972).

SOS: Sh#% on a Shingle

by Kelly Duffy, NMAS Deputy Director

If you ask Navy veterans about their favorite food while serving, there is a high probability that “Sh#% on a Shingle” or SOS for short, will make the list. No, this is not an April fool’s joke, and SOS is an actual Navy recipe. While the dish’s exact origins cannot be determined, some argue that SOS can be traced to a pre-World War I Army “Chipped Beef” recipe that appeared in the 1910 Manual for Army Cooks. Due to its enduring popularity, SOS can now be found in many a Navy cookbook. Made from chipped beef and a simple seasoned roux served over toast, it continues to be a favorite dish for sailors and an easy meal for Navy Culinary Specialists to make.

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Green Faces, Blue Jeans: Blue Jeans during Vietnam

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The jungles of Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War may not seem like the best place to make a fashion statement, but the U.S. Navy SEALs have never played by the rules. The “men with green faces” quickly discovered upon arrival in Vietnam that the climate was harsh and Navy-issued pants were not necessarily cut out for the environment. To contend with the pests and the unforgiving jungle, SEALs turned to a tried and true American classic: the blue jean.

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“A Strenuous Life” Inspiration to Exercise from Navy History

by LT E.J.A. Prevoznak, National Museum of the American Sailor Volunteer

New year, new you, as they say, and one of the most popular ways to find a “new you” is by resolving to get into better physical shape. The ushering in of the new year has many hoping they can lose weight, gain muscle, and perhaps even participate in a physical fitness or sporting competition. However, numerous studies show most people who make health and fitness-oriented resolutions quit before February 1. Fitness app Strava has dubbed January 17 “Quitter’s Day.”1 Other reports state the best time to buy fitness equipment is in February because most fitness resolutions have failed, and remaining equipment is put on steep discount.2 Many people fail because they do not strive to live a “strenuous life” as Theodore Roosevelt famously declared.3 Teddy’s quote underscores an important element that many fitness resolutions lack – consistency to inspire them throughout the year. For sailors, failing to maintain their fitness resolutions can come with a steep price, which is why sailors make great inspiration for those seeking to turn around their physical fitness.

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Standing Watch in Santa Hats: Holidays at Sea

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The twinkling of bells and Burl Ives fill the air with holiday cheer, with a nip of snow in the wind and arms laden with bright shopping bags filled with toys. The magic of the holiday season is upon Americans from coast to coast. Meanwhile, sailors are standing watch in the cold and in the heat, always vigilant, no matter the date on the calendar. The Navy’s mission never stops, but that doesn’t mean sailors don’t find ways to celebrate December’s major holidays.

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Gratitude During the Storm: Thankfulness in a Sailor’s Life

By LT Jamieson Prevoznak, Museum Volunteer

The Grateful Dead song, “Lost Sailor” sings the tale of a lonely seafarer who has “been way too long at sea.” On the ship, the compass is spinning uncontrollably and there is no one at the helm. The “ghost wind” is blowing, calling to the sailor, saying there is “no place in this world you can be.”1 Many sailors know this feeling, but the winds of gratitude and thankfulness is what propels them back to safe harbors.

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We Were Into This Very Much Before It Was Cool: Sea Shanties and the United States Navy Sailor

by Dr. Jennifer Searcy, Museum Director and Tricia Menke, Curator of Education

In 2021, the United States Navy Band released a sea shanty-styled cover of popular music singer and songwriter Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Getting Back Together.” The cover became a viral hit with hundreds of thousands of views and introduced the United States Navy Band to new audiences. When promoting a video of the cover, the Navy’s Chief of Information and Office of Information (CHINFO) highlighted the United States Navy sailor’s long relationship with the sea shanty genre, tweeting “We were into this very much before it was cool.”

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Hitler, Reporting for Duty

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

It’s 1944 and a dark-haired young man enters a New York City U.S. Navy recruiting office. The officer on duty asks the same question he’s asked hundreds of young men, but the officer is about to get an unexpected answer. “What’s your name, son?” “Hitler.” The recruiting officer laughs at the ‘joke’ and replies, “Glad to meet you Hitler. I’m Hess.”[i]

Except it was no joke. The dark-haired young man really is named Hitler and he shares more than just a last name with the Nazi leader. He’s William Patrick Hitler, Adolf Hitler’s nephew, and he’s joining the United States Navy. It may come as a surprise that Hitler’s blood relative was joining the Allies, but William’s relationship with his uncle was already famously tumultuous.

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Training is Only Bootcamp, Right? Wrong.

by Tricia Menke, Curator of Education at the National Museum of the American Sailor

Here are the National Museum of the American Sailor, our staff has the unique opportunity to work directly with the Navy’s enlisted sailors, stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. At any given time, the museum has one to three working party sailors who help out at the museum. They do odd jobs, including cleaning, assisting with exhibit builds, and greeting the public. These sailors are on hold, usually waiting for orders between the completion of A School at Great Lakes and moving on to C School or out to the fleet.

Before he left for C School in Dahlgren, Virginia, I sat down with one of our working party sailors, Fire Controlman Third Class Andrew Wallace.

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USS Sanctuary: An Experiment in Integration

by Tricia Menke, Curator of Education at the National Museum of the American Sailor

When President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act into effect on June 12, 1948, it did not automatically translate into ‘smooth sailing’ for women in the United States Navy. Despite the act’s signing, the Navy continued to segregate men and women, both during training and while in service. For many female sailors in the post-World War II era, the fight for equal opportunity remained. In perhaps the most obvious instance of inequality, it would be an additional two decades before women were allowed to serve at sea, side-by-side with their male shipmates.

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