Women Making WAVES: the Evolution of Women in the Navy

by Kim Ortega, NMAS Museum Tech

On August 18, 2020 (a mere few weeks away), we will celebrate the 100th Anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. After a multi-generational battle that included lectures, marches, lobbying, and other forms of demonstrations, this amendment declared that “the right of citizens in the United States to vote shall not be denied to abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex” and granted most women in the United States the right to vote. While the right to vote came later for most women, the United States Navy began officially evolving women’s role in the fleet twelve years earlier.


Women from across the country assemble for the first Women’s Suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. in 1913. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress.



Official program from the first Women’s Suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. held on March 3, 1913. Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress.

On May 13, 1908, Congress established the Navy Nurse Corps that was the first opportunity for women to serve their country in an official capacity. A successful program, over 1,500 nurses joined the Navy Nurse Corps by the end of World War I. In additional to serving in the Navy Nurse Corps, women also entered the United States Navy through a loophole in the Naval Reserve Act of 1916. As the act did not specify gender as a condition for serving in the Navy’s Yeoman rate, women could now obtain ratings previously closed to them. Known as “Yeomanettes,” under this act women served in positions such as translators, drafters, fingerprint experts, ship camouflage designers, or munitions manufacturing. Over 11,000 women served as “Yeomanettes” during World War I before their release from active duty in the summer of 1919. 

NH 52909

Personnel in a Navy Department with “Yeomanettes” hard at work. office Catalog #: NH 52909. Photograph courtesy of NHHC.

Following a twenty-three-year absence from the Navy, women returned to the service when the United States entered World War II. After President Franklin Roosevelt signed Public Law 689, the federal government established the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) on July 30, 1942. The addition of this new women’s reserve allowed the Navy to send more sailors overseas to fight on the frontlines. Responding to this call, women from across the United States and surrounding territories such as Puerto Rico flocked to serve their country. Within a year of the WAVES’ establishment, an estimated 27,000 women enlisted, and the Navy assigned them to one of five ratings. By the end of the war in 1945, the WAVES included 88,000 women in their ranks.   


WAVES recruitment poster designed by John Falter in 1944. Photograph courtesy of NHHC.


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Three WAVES Hospital Apprentices (left to right: Ruth Isaacs, Katherine Horton, and Inez Patterson). According to Naval History and Heritage Command, these women were the first Black WAVES “to enter the Hospital Corps School at the National Naval Medical Center” in Bethesda, Maryland on March 2, 1945. Catalog #: 80-G-126507. Photograph courtesy of NHHC.

World War II served as a catalyst for ways in which women could serve in the Navy in non-traditional gender-defined roles. Expanding upon administrative or nursing duties, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command, more than 30% “of the WAVES worked as naval aviation training pilots, air traffic controllers, and parachute testers.” Seaman Second Class Mary Benz (Gere) is an example of one of these women. Hailing from Syracuse, New York, Benz entered the WAVES in 1942 and attended anti-aircraft gunnery school at Naval Station Great Lakes – the first Navy base to offer this type of training for WAVES. The courses she took ultimately qualified her as an anti-aircraft gunnery instructor and trained new recruits in San Francisco, most likely at Naval Station Treasure Island. 

Since the end of World War II, women’s roles in the Navy continued to progress significantly. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which became law on June 12, 1948, enabled women to serve as permanent, regular members of the armed forces. Within a month of its passing, the Navy swore in its first six female enlistees. Since the establishment of the Navy Nurse Corps in 1908, women in the United States Navy continue to serve as examples of what the Navy represents: honor, courage, and commitment. 

Interested in finding out more information on women in the Navy? The National Museum of the American Sailor invites you to attend a virtual presentation of “Great Lakes, Great Women” on Tuesday, August 18, 2020 at 6:00 pm CDT. For more information please visit our Facebook page. 

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