Women in World War II
Women in World War II took on a variety of roles from country to country. World War II involved global conflict on an unprecedented scale; the absolute urgency of mobilizing the entire population made the expansion of the role of women inevitable. The hard skilled labor of women was symbolized in the United States by the concept of Rosie the Riveter, a woman factory laborer performing what was previously considered man's work.
With this expanded horizon of opportunity and confidence, and with the extended skill base that many women could now give to paid and voluntary employment, women's roles in World War II were even more extensive than in the First World War. By 1945, more than 2.2 million women were working in the war industries, building ships, aircraft, vehicles, and weaponry. Women also worked in factories, munitions plants and farms, and also drove trucks, provided logistic support for soldiers and entered professional areas of work that were previously the preserve of men. In the Allied countries thousands of women enlisted as nurses serving on the front lines. Thousands of others joined defensive militias at home and there was a great increase in the number of women serving for the military itself, particularly in "The Red Army" (see below).
In the World War Two era, approximately 400,000 U.S. women served with the armed forces and more than 460 — some sources say the figure is closer to 543 — lost their lives as a result of the war, including 16 from enemy fire. Women became officially recognized as a permanent part of the armed forces with the passing of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.
Several hundred thousand women served in combat roles, especially in anti-aircraft units. The U.S. decided not to use women in combat because public opinion would not tolerate it.
When Britain went to war, as before in World War I, previously forbidden job opportunities opened up for women. Women were called into the factories to create the weapons that were used on the battlefield. Women took on responsibility of managing the home and became the heroines of the home front. According to Carruthers, this industrial employment of women significantly raised women’s self-esteem as it allowed them to carry out their full potential and do their part in the war. During the war, women’s normative roles of “house wife” transformed into a patriotic duty. As Carruther’s put it, the housewife has become a heroine in the defeat of Hitler (235). The roles of women shifting from domestic to masculine and dangerous jobs in the workforce made for important changes in workplace structure and society. During the Second World War, society had specific ideals for the jobs in which both women and men participated in. When women began to enter into the masculine workforce and munitions industries previously dominated by men, women’s segregation began to diminish. Increasing numbers of women were forced into industry jobs between 1940-1943. As surveyed by the Ministry of Labour, the percentage of women in industrial jobs went from 19.75 per cent to 27 per cent from 1938-1945. It was very difficult for women to spend their days in factories, and then come home to their domestic chores and care-giving, and as a result, many women were unable to hold their jobs in the workplace. Britain underwent a labour shortage where an estimated 1.5 million people were needed for the armed forces, and an additional 775,000 for munitions and other services in 1942. It was during this ‘labour famine’ that propaganda aimed to induce people to join the labour force and do their bit in the war. Women were the target audience in the various forms of propaganda because they were paid substantially less than men. It was of no concern whether women were filling the same jobs that men previously held. Even if women were replacing jobs with the same skill level as a man, they were still paid significantly less due to their gender. In the engineering industry alone, the number of skilled and semi-skilled female workers increased from 75 per cent to 85 per cent from 1940-1942. According to Gazeley, even though women were paid less than men, it is clear that women engaging in war work and taking on jobs preserved by men reduced industrial segregation.
In Britain, women were essential to the war effort, in both civilian and military roles. The contribution by civilian men and women to the British war effort was acknowledged with the use of the words "Home Front" to describe the battles that were being fought on a domestic level with rationing, recycling, and war work, such as in munitions factories and farms and Men were thus released into the military. Women were also recruited to work on the canals, transporting coal and munitions by barge across the UK via the inland waterways. These became known as the 'Idle Women', initially an insult derived from the initials IW, standing for Inland Waterways, which they wore on their badges, but the term was soon adopted by the women themselves. Many women served with the Women's Auxiliary Fire Service, the Women's Auxiliary Police Corps and in the Air Raid Precautions (later Civil Defence) services. Others did voluntary welfare work with Women's Voluntary Service for Civil Defence and the salvation Army.
Women were "drafted" in the sense that they were conscripted into war work by the Ministry of Labour, including non-combat jobs in the military, such as the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS or "Wrens"), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF or "Waffs") and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). Auxiliary services such as the Air Transport Auxiliary also recruited women. In the early stages of the war such services relied exclusively on volunteers, however by 1941 conscription was extended to women for the first time in British history and around 600,000 women were recruited into these three organizations. In these organizations women performed a wide range of jobs in support of the Army, Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy both overseas and at home. These jobs ranged from feminine roles like cook, clerk and telephonist to more masculine duties like mechanic, armourer, searchlight and anti- aircraft instrument operator. British women were not drafted into combat units, but could volunteer for combat duty in anti-aircraft units, which shot down German planes and V-1 missiles. Civilian women joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which used them in high-danger roles as secret agents and underground radio operators in Nazi occupied Europe.
British Women’s Propaganda was issued during the war in attempts to communicate to the house-wife that while keeping the domestic role, she must also take on a political role of patriotic duty. Propaganda was meant to eliminate all conflicts of personal and political roles and create a heroine out of the women. The implication with propaganda is that it asked women to redefine their personal and domestic ideals of womanhood and motivate them go against the roles that have been instilled in them. The government struggled to encourage women to respond to posters and other forms of propaganda. One attempt to recruit women into the labour force was in one short film, My Father’s Daughter. In this propaganda film a wealthy factory owner’s daughter begs to do her part in the war, but her father carries the stereotypical belief that women are meant to be caretakers and are incapable of such heavy work. When one foreman presents one of the most valuable and efficient workers in the factory as the daughter, the father’s prejudices are eliminated. The encouraging message of this short film is, “There’s Not Much Women Can’t Do.” 
The most common role of women in active service was that of a searchlight operator. In fact, all of the members of the 93rd Searchlights Regiment were females (Harris). Despite being limited in their roles, there was a great amount of respect between the men and women in the mixed batteries. In fact, one report states, “Many men were amazed that women could make adequate gunners despite their excitable temperament, lack of technical instincts, their lack of interest in aeroplanes and their physical weaknesses”. While women still faced discrimination from some of the highly stereotypical older soldiers and officers who did not like women “playing with their guns”, women were still given rifle practice and taught to use anti-aircraft guns while serving in their batteries. They were told that this was in case the Germans invaded…however if that were to ever happen, they would be evacuated immediately.).
Three quarters of women who entered the wartime forces were volunteers, compared to men who made up less than a third. Single or married women were eligible to volunteer in WAAF, ATS or WRNS and were required to serve throughout Britain as well as overseas if needed, however the age limits set by the services varied from each other. Generally women between 17 and 43 could volunteer and those under 18 required parental consent. After applying, applicants had to fulfill other requirements, including an interview and medical examination; if they were deemed fit to serve then they were enrolled for the duration of the war. WRNS was the only service that offered an immobile branch which allowed women to live in their homes and work in the local naval establishment. WRNS was the smallest of the three organizations and as a result was very selective with their candidates. Of the three organizations, WAAF was the most preferred choice; the second being WRNS. ATS was the largest of the three organizations and was least favoured among women because it accepted those who were unable to get into the other forces. ATS had also developed a reputation of promiscuity and poor living conditions, many women also saw the khaki uniform unappealing and as a result caused women to favour WRNS and WAAF over ATS.
Women were limited in their roles-they were allowed to do almost anything except fire the guns. This meant that they never got to capitalize on the training they received. This was the most common sexual distinction between men and women during the war: women went through the same military training, lived in the same conditions and did almost the same jobs as men, however were restricted from actually killing anyone. This small but important distinction meant that women were not eligible for any of the medals of valour or bravery, because they were only awarded for “active operations against enemy in the field”, which women could not take part in. Women were also distinct because of the titles by which they were addressed in the army: corporals were known as bombardiers and privates were known as gunners. They were also required to wear their designations differently on their uniforms, further distinguishing them from their male counterparts. Discipline differed as well, as a woman was not allowed to be court marshaled unless she herself chose to be. The women in the service were also under the authority of the women officers of the ATS, instead of the male officers they served directly under. This meant any disciplinary action was difficult.
Despite their obvious distinctions from men, women were eager to volunteer. Many of the servicewomen came from restricted backgrounds; therefore they found the army liberating. Other reasons women volunteered included escaping unhappy homes or marriages, or to have a more stimulating job. The overwhelming reason for joining the army, though, was patriotism. As in World War I, Great Britain was in a patriotic fervour throughout World War II to protect itself from foreign invasion. Women, for the first time, were given the opportunity to help in their native land’s defense, which explains the high number of female volunteers at the beginning of the war. Even Princess Elizabeth was a driver for the Second Subaltern Windsor Unit, having joined to do her part in the protection of the country. Despite the overwhelming response to the call for female volunteers, some women refused to join the forces; many were unwilling to give up the civilian job they had, and others had male counterparts that were unwilling to let them go (Crang 384). Others felt that war was still a man’s job, and not something women should be involved in. Similar to the men’s forces, women’s forces were mostly volunteer throughout the war. When women’s conscription did come into effect, however, it was highly limited. For example, married women were exempt from any obligation to serve unless they chose to do so, and those who were called could opt to serve in civil defense (the home front).
During the war, approximately 487,000 women volunteered for women’s services; 80,000 for WRNS, 185,000 for WAAF and 222,000 for ATS. By 1941 the demands of the wartime industry called for women’s services to be expanded so that more men could be relieved of their previous positions and take on more active roles on the battle field. Of all the women’s services, ATS needed the greatest number of new applicants; however due to ATS’ lack of popularity, they were unable to gain the estimated 100,000 new volunteers needed. To try and change women’s opinions on ATS, living conditions were improved and a new more flattering uniform was made. In 1941 the Registration for Employment Order was introduced in hopes of getting more women enrolled. This act could not force women to join the forces, but instead required women ages 20–30 to try to find employment through labour exchanges and provide information on their current employment and family situations. Those who were deemed eligible were persuaded into the war industry because the Ministry of Labour did not have the power to force. Propaganda was also used to persuade women into the women's services. poster By the end of 1941, ATS had only gained 58,000 new workers, falling short of expectations.Ernest Bevin then called for conscription and by late 1941 with the National Service Act it became compulsory for women ages 20–30 to join military service. Married women were exempt from conscription, but those who were eligible had the option to work in war industry or civil defense if they did not want to join one of the women services. Women were able to request which force they wished to join but most women were put into ATS because of its need for new applicants. The National Service Act was repealed in 1949 but by 1944 women were no longer being called up for service because relying on volunteers was thought to be enough to complete the required tasks during the final stages of war.
Women also played an important role in British industrial production during the war, in areas such as metals, chemicals, munitions, shipbuilding and engineering. At the beginning of the war in 1939 17.8% of women made up employment in these industries and by 1943 they made up 38.2%. With the start of the war there was an urgent need to expand the country’s labour force and women were seen as a source of factory labour. Before the war women in industrial production were exclusively on assembly, which was seen as cheap and undemanding work but during the war women were needed in other areas in the production process that were previously done by men such as Lathe operators. The Ministry of Labour created training centres that gave an introduction to the engineering process, and by 1941 women were allowed entrance as the importance of the engineering industry grew and became a large source of female employment. Areas such as aircraft manufacture, light and heavy general engineering and motor vehicle manufacturing all saw an increase in female employment during the war. Aircraft production saw the largest rise in female employment as it rose from 7% in 1935 to 40% in 1944. At the start of the war men who were already in engineering were prevented from going to war because engineering was seen as an important industry to war production but in 1940 there became a need for more female workers to supply the necessary labour for factory expansion. By 1941 with the shortage of skilled labour the Essential Workers Order was introduced which required all skilled workers to register and prevented workers from quitting from jobs that were deemed essential to the war effort without agreement from a National Service Officer. The Registration for the Employment Order in 1941 and the Women of Employment Order in 1942 also attempted to get more women into the workforce. The Women of Employment Order required women ages 18–45 to register for labour exchanges and by 1943 the maximum age was raised to 50, which brought an additional 20,000 women into the workforce. Aircraft production was given the top labour priority and many women were diverted into it with some even being transferred from agricultural production.
Interpretation of aerial photographs
One of the most important roles within the forces that women occupied during the war was that of interpreting aerial photographs taken by British spy planes over Allied Europe. There was equality in this work that was not found anywhere else during the war: women were considered equal to men in this field. Women played an important role in the planning of D-Day in this capacity-they analyzed the photos of the Normandy Coast and decided which beaches the troops landed on and which sections. Women as photo analysts also participated in the biggest intelligence coup of the war-the discovery of the German V1 flying bomb. The participation of women allowed these bombs to be destroyed.
Although many women were doing jobs that men had previously done during the war, there were still pay distinctions between the two sexes. Equal pay was rarely achieved as employers wanted to avoid labour costs. Skilled work was often broken down into smaller tasks and labelled skilled or semi-skilled and then paid according to women's pay rates. Women who were judged to be doing ‘men’s work’ were paid more than women who were thought to be doing ‘women’s work’ and the employers' definition of this varied regionally. Women were receiving closer wages to their male counterparts; however despite the government's expressed intentions, women continued to be paid less than men for equivalent work and were segregated in terms of job description, status, and the hours they put in. In 1940 Ernest Bevin persuaded engineering employers and unions to give women equal pay to men since they were taking on the same tasks that men previously had; this became the Extended Employment of Women Agreement. Generally, pay increases depended on the industry; industries that were dominated by women before the war, like textiles and clothing, saw no changes in pay. However the gap between male and female earnings narrowed by 20-24% in metals, engineering and vehicle building and by 10-13% in chemicals, which were all deemed important to the war effort. Overtime hours also differed, with women getting 2–3 hours and men 9-10 a week. Women’s hours were still regulated because of their responsibilities to take care of their family and household.
Postwar, women were returned to many of the mundane jobs they occupied before the war started. Where once the army represented an escape from domestic life and liberty, it now returned to the male-dominated field it was before the war. Women who served in the batteries as gunners and searchlight-operators were suddenly being demeaned to secretaries and clerks, taking away any opportunity these women may have had to capitalize on their training. 'Demob was a big disappointment to a lot of us. It was an awful and wonderful war. I wouldn't have missed it for anything; some of the friends we made were forever.” One female recounted after being dismissed from service to return to her normal job. Married women were released from service sooner at the end of the war, so they could return home before their husbands to ensure the home was ready when he returned from the front. Despite being largely unrecognized for their wartime efforts in the forces, the participation of women in World War II allowed for the founding of permanent women’s forces. Britain instituted these permanent forces in 1949, and the Women’s Voluntary Services are still a standing reserve force today.
When war began to look unavoidable in the late 1930s, Canadian women felt obligated to help the fight. In October of 1938, the Women’s Volunteer Service was established in Victoria, BC. Soon, all the provinces and territories followed suit and similar volunteer groups were emerged. “Husbands, brothers, fathers, boyfriends were all joining up, doing something to help win the war. Surely women could help as well!”  In addition to the Red Cross, several volunteer corps had designed themselves after auxiliary groups from Britain. These corps had uniforms, marching drills and a few had rifle training. It soon was clear, that a unified governing system would be beneficial to the corps. The volunteers in British Columbia donated two dollars each to pay the expenses so a representative could talk to politicians in Ottawa. Although all of the politicians appeared sympathetic to the cause, it remained ‘premature’ in terms of national necessity.
In June 1941, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps was established. The women who enlisted would take over
- Drivers of light mechanical transport vehicles
- Cooks in hospitals and messes
- Clerks, typists, and stenographers at camps and training centres
- Telephone operators and messengers
- Canteen helpers
On July 2, 1942 women were given permission to enlist in what would be known as the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. Lastly the Royal Canadian Navy created the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service or the WRENS. The WRENS were the only corps that were officially a part of their sanctioning body as a women’s division. This led to bureaucratic issues that would be solved most easily by absorbing the civilian corps governed by military organizations, into women’s divisions as soldiers. According to the RCAF the following are the requirements of an enlisted woman:
- Must be at least 18 years of age, and younger than 41 years of age
- Must be of medical category A4B (equivalent of A1)
- Must be equal to or over 5 feet, and fall within the appropriate weight for her height, not being too far above or below the standard
- Must have a minimum education of entrance into high school
- Be able to pass the appropriate trades test
- Be of good character with no record of conviction for an indictable offence
Women would not be considered for enlistment if they were married and had children dependent on them. Training centres were required for all of the new recruits. They could not be sent to the existing centres as it was necessary that they be separated from male recruits. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps set up centres in Vermilion, AB and Kitchener, ON. Ottawa, ON and Toronto, ON were the locations of the training centres for the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The WRENS were outfitted in Galt, ON. Each service had to come up with the best possible appeal to the women joining, for they all wanted them. In reality, the women went where their fathers, brothers and boyfriends were. Women had numerous reasons for wanting to join the effort; whether they had a father, husband, or brother in the forces, or simply felt the patriotic duty to help. One woman blatantly exclaimed that she could not wait to turn eighteen to enlist, because she had fantasies of assassinating Hitler. Many women aged 16 or 17 lied about their age in order to enlist. The United States would only allow women to join that were at least twenty-one. For their young female citizens, Canada was the logical option. Recruitment for the different branches of the Canadian Forces was set up in places like Boston and New York. Modifications were made to girls with US citizenship, having their records marked, “Oath of allegiance not taken by virtue of being a citizen of The United States of America.” 
Women were obligated to conform to the same enlistment requirements as men. They had to adhere to medical examinations, and fitness requirements as well as training in certain trades depending on the aspect of the armed forces they wanted to be a part of. Enlisted women were issued entire uniforms minus the undergarments, which they would receive a quarterly allowance for.
To be an enlisted woman during the creation stages was not easy. Besides the fact that everyone was learning as they went, they did not receive the support they needed from the male recruits. To begin with, women were initially paid two-thirds of what a man at the same level would make. As the war progressed the military leaders began to see the substantial impact the women could make. In many cases the women had outperformed their male counterparts. This was taken into account and the women received a raise to four-fifths of the wages of a man. A female doctor however, would receive equal financial compensation to her male counterpart. The negative reaction of men towards the female recruits was addressed in propaganda films. Proudly She Marches and Wings on Her Shoulder were made to show the acceptance of female recruits, while showing the men that although they were taking jobs traditionally intended for men, they would be able to retain their femininity. .
Other problems faced early on for these women were that of a more racial stature. An officer of the CWAC had to write to her superiors regarding whether or not a girl of “Indian nationality” would be objected for enlistment. Because of Canada’s large population of immigrants, German women also enlisted creating great animosity between recruits. The biggest difficulty was however the French-Canadian population. In a document dated 25 November 1941, it was declared that enlisted women should ‘unofficially’ speak English. However, seeing the large number of capable women that this left out, a School of English was stabled for recruits in mid-1942. . In 1942, Mary Greyeyes-Reid became the first First Nations woman to join the Canadian Forces. She was featured in photographs to represent native people in the forces, yet at the same time was not welcome in the barracks due to discrimination.
Once in training, some women felt that they had made a mistake. Several women cracked under the pressure and were hospitalized. Other women felt the need to escape, and simply ran away. The easiest and fastest ticket home however was pregnancy. Women who found out that they were expecting were given a special, quickly executed, discharge.
The women who successfully graduated from training had to find ways to entertain themselves to keep morale up. Softball, badminton, tennis, and hockey were among popular pastimes for recruits. .
Religion was of a personal matter to the recruits. A minister of sorts was usually on site for services. For Jewish girls, it was custom that they were able to get back to their barracks by sundown on Sabbath and holidays; a Rabbi would be made available if possible. .
At the beginning of the war 600,000 women in Canada held permanent jobs in the private sector, by the peak in 1943 1.2 million women had jobs. Women quickly gained a good reputation for their mechanical dexterity and fine precision due to their smaller stature. At home a woman could work as:
- Cafeteria workers
- Loggers or lumberjills
- Munitions workers
Women also had to keep their homes together while the men were away. “An Alberta mother of nine boys, all away at either war or factory jobs – drove the tractor, plowed the fields, put up hay, and hauled grain to the elevators, along with tending her garden, raising chickens, pigs, and turkeys, and canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables.” 
In addition to physical jobs, women were also asked to cut back and ration. Silk and nylon were used for the war efforts, creating a shortage of stockings. Many women actually painted lines down the back of their legs to create the illusion of wearing the fashionable stockings of the time.
Much like in the United Kingdom, the Finnish women took part in defence: nursing, air raid signaling, rationing and hospitalization of the wounded. Their organization was called Lotta Svärd, where voluntary women took part in auxiliary work of the armed forces to help those fighting on the front. Lotta Svärd was one of the largest, if not the largest, voluntary group in World War II. They never fired guns (a rule among the Lottas).
The Third Reich had many roles for women, including combat. The SS-Helferinnen were regarded as part of the SS if they had undergone training at a Reichsschule SS but all other female workers were regarded as being contracted to the SS and chosen largely from concentration camps. Women also served in auxiliary units in the navy (Kriegshelferinnen), air force (Luftnachrichtenhelferinnen) and army (Nachrichtenhelferin).
In 1944-45 more than 500,000 women were volunteer uniformed auxiliaries in the German armed forces (Wehrmacht). About the same number served in civil aerial defense, 400,000 volunteered as nurses, and many more replaced drafted men in the wartime economy. In the Luftwaffe they served in combat roles helping to operate the anti—aircraft systems that shot down Allied bombers. By 1945, German women were holding 85% of the billets as clericals, accountants, interpreters, laboratory workers, and administrative workers, together with half of the clerical and junior administrative posts in high-level field headquarters.
Germany had a very large and well organized nursing service, with four main organizations, one for Catholics, one for Protestants, the secular DRK (Red Cross) and the "Brown Nurses," for committed Nazi women. Military nursing was primarily handled by the DRK, which came under partial Nazi control. Frontline medical services were provided by male medics and doctors. Red Cross nurses served widely within the military medical services, staffing the hospitals that perforce were close to the front lines and at risk of bombing attacks. Two dozen were awarded the iron Cross for heroism under fire. The brief historiography focuses on the dilemmas of Brown Nurses forced to look the other way while their incapacitated patients were murdered.
Hundreds of women auxiliaries (Aufseherin) served for the SS in the camps, the majority of which were at Ravensbrück. In Germany women also worked, and were told by Hitler to produce more pure Aryan children to fight in future wars.
The Italian Social Republic had similar roles for women. In the 1944 the Women's Auxiliary Service (Servizio Ausiliario Femminile) were regarded as part of the RSI military formations. The commander was the brigadier general Piera Gatteschi Fondelli.
In occupied Poland, as elsewhere, women played a major role in the resistance movement, putting them in the front line. Their most important role was as couriers carrying messages between cells of the resistance movement and distributing news broadsheets and operating clandestine printing presses. During partisan attacks on Nazi forces and installations they served as scouts.
During the Warsaw Rising of 1944, female members of the Home Army were couriers and medics, but many carried weapons and took part in the fighting. Among the more notable women of the Home Army was Wanda Gertz who created and commanded DYSK (Women's sabotage unit). For her bravery in these activities and later in the Warsaw Uprising she was awarded Poland's highest awards - Virtuti Militari and Polonia Restituta. One of the articles of the capitulation was that the German Army recognized them as full members of the armed forces and needed to set up separate Prisoner-of-war camps to hold over 2000 women prisoners-of-war.
The Soviet Union mobilized women at an early stage of the war, integrating them into the main army units, and not using the "auxiliary" status. Some 800,000 women served, most of whom were in front-line duty units. About 300,000 served in anti-aircraft units and performed all functions in the batteries—including firing the guns. A small number were combat flyers in the Air Force.
Tito's Yugoslav National Liberation Movement claimed 6,000,000 civilian supporters; its two million women formed the Antifascist Front of Women (AFŽ), in which the revolutionary coexisted with the traditional. The AFŽ managed schools, hospitals and even local governments. About 100,000 women served with 600,000 men in Tito's Yugoslav National Liberation Army. It stressed its dedication to women's rights and gender equality and used the imagery of traditional folklore heroines to attract and legitimize the partizanka. After the war women were relegated to traditional gender roles, but Yugoslavia is unique as its historians paid extensive attention to women's roles in the resistance, until the country broke up in the 1990s. Then the memory of the women soldiers faded away.
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