Today in Feminist History: American Women Are Essential to the War Effort (July 5, 1943)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 5, 1943: The crucial role of women in America’s war effort was illustrated today in developments regarding their work in the air, in war plants, and potentially at sea.

Jacqueline Cochran in a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

Jacqueline Cochran has been named to the newly-created post of Director of Women Pilots in the Army Air Forces, and given an office in the Pentagon. This is a clear indication that women will be doing even more than at present, and, as the War Department put it, is a “recognition of the achievement and growing importance of women pilots in the war effort.”

Cochran was so eager to join the fight against the Axis that in March of last year she and 25 women went to Britain to fly for the British Air Transport Authority while the U.S. Army was still deciding what role women would play in its Air Forces. After returning to the U.S. in September, she became Director of the Army Air Forces Women’s Flying Training Detachment. A hundred and fifty women pilots have already graduated from the training course she directed and hundreds more are in training now. The training originally consisted of 115 hours of flying time over 23 weeks, but has been increased to 230 hours over 30 weeks.

Also today, Nancy Harkness Love, organizer and head of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), has been transferred to the Air Transport Command Headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she will serve as an executive on the staff of Col. William H. Turner, commanding officer of the entire Ferrying Division of the Air Transport Command. The duties of the WAFS are expected to be expanded, and there is even speculation that they might eventually become part of the Regular Army, though other possibilities are being considered.

Yet another milestone today, as Oveta Culp Hobby was sworn in as Director of the Women’s Army Corps, with the rank of full Colonel. She is the first female Colonel in U.S. history, and continues in the position of leadership she held in what was previously the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. 

American’s sixteen million women doing war work were saluted today by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. In a message to twelve women’s organizations on the Advisory Committee of the Women’s Bureau, she said:

“The scope of woman power in American industry and commerce today is shown in the variety of jobs held for the first time by women. We have women who scrape the carbon from pipes in oil refineries, women who seal ton rolls of paper in the pulp mills, women who wash down locomotives, drive buses, operate foundry cranes and pilot tugboats.”

This is much different from 25 years ago when women did not replace men in significant numbers until after the second draft, and then only gradually in industries which had not employed women before.

Last, but not least, women of the U.S. Merchant Marine are asking that they be allowed to return to their ships. They were removed from their vessels and prohibited from sea duty – “beached” as they put it – immediately after Pearl Harbor by orders of the War Shipping Authority. But though many have found work in defense industries, they love the sea as much as male sailors do, and are now in New York City to lobby the National Maritime Union at its convention for an official statement approving their goal of having the ban lifted. They have formed an American Seafaring Women’s Committee, but have thus far been unsuccessful in trying to get the Navy and Coast Guard to change their policies. 

Women at sea in wartime would not be without precedent. England’s “Wrens,” (as those in the Women’s Royal Naval Service are known) have recently begun sailing the Atlantic on troop transports, doing everything from coding to standing regular watches. There’s no reason why patriotic American women couldn’t do equally vital jobs at a time when the talents of all Americans need to be fully utilized in order to bring about victory at the soonest possible time. 


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.