Today in Feminist History: Women Serve in the Military (August 29th, 1942)

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.


August 29, 1942: Today was graduation day for the first class of officers of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), and all the dignitaries present to witness the ceremony were quite impressed with what the women had accomplished since beginning their training on July 20th.

The ultimately successful battle to get Congress to pass a bill giving its official approval to women serving in uniform, and to assure that both the officer and enlisted ranks would be open to women of all races was hard-fought, but today nothing but praise for the Corps was heard, coming from two Generals, the WAAC Director, and the bill’s Congressional sponsor.

After the graduates passed in review prior to the ceremony, Major General Ulio, Adjutant General of the Army said: 

“I’ve never seen anything like it. When the first company came by my first reaction was to applaud rather than salute. It was outstanding. Many of our soldiers would do well to emulate them. I am very proud to be a part of this.”

Major Oveta Culp Hobby, Director of the WAAC, echoed Ulio’s sentiments and said: “I was never more proud than I am today.” Hobby also received a telegram from General George Marshall, saying: “Please act for me in welcoming them into the Army. This is only the beginning of a magnificent war service by the women of America.”

Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts, who never wavered in her efforts to establish the new group, told just how long her struggle had been as she delivered the commencement address: “You represent a dream which I conceived during the First World War, when, working in England and on the battlefields of France, I saw work performed by members of the women’s army.”

During that conflict 21,480 women served as Army nurses, 10,245 of them in Europe. There were also 1,476 Navy nurses. Over 400 military nurses died in the line of duty, most from a particularly vicious and contagious form of influenza that swept through the packed military hospitals. Rogers told today’s graduates: “You are soldiers and belong to America. Every hour must be your finest hour.”

Though urged to grant direct commissions to prominent individuals or those with special skills, as some other services do, Hobby rejected the idea and has decreed that no one can become an officer in the WAAC without going through this rigorous training. And it was quite challenging. Candidates were up early enough to be neatly dressed for inspection at 6:00 in the morning, and except for a lunch break, they trained through 5:00. After supper it was time for a required study hour and washing clothes.

One objective indication of the dedication of this class was its graduation rate: 98.2% of those who began the training successfully completed it. The 436 new graduates are now Third Officers, which is the equivalent of Second Lieutenant. Each officer has her gold bar, but the WAAC insignia is still in production since the Corps was only created on May 15th. 

After leaving Fort Des Moines in about two weeks, some of the new officers will be deployed to engage in recruitment, others to train those new recruits, or to take over jobs presently being done by male soldiers so the men can be freed for combat. Some of the women may even be sent to assignments in England. But wherever they’re stationed, they will certainly be of great service to the country, and have the opportunity to show that women can serve in the military as well as in defense plants to support our war effort.


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About

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.