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.
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
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.
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.
- “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.
- “Mary A. Hallaren,” National Museum of the United States Army, https://www.thenmusa.org/biographies/mary-a-hallaren/.
- Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Talihook. (New York: Maxwell Macmilian Company, 1993) 89.
- Travis Riley, “The WAVES: An Inspiration for the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act,” University of Rhode Island, 2008.
- U.S. Senate, Committee on the Armed Services, Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1947, 80th Congress, 1st sess., 1947.
- “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.
- Margaret Chase Smith, Speech to the U.S. House of Representatives, 6 April 1948.
- Margaret Chase Smith, Declaration of Conscience (New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1972).