On July 30, 1942 President Roosevelt signed into law the establishment of the WAVES (Woman Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service). Establishing the WAVES was a lengthy effort. Inter-war changes in the Naval Reserve legislation specifically limited service to men, so new legislation was essential. The next few months saw the commissioning of Mildred McAfee, and several other prominent female educators and professionals, to guide the new organization. Just one year later in July 1943, 27,000 women wore the WAVES uniform.
The WAVES performed jobs in fields such as aviation, clerical, medical, communication, legal, intelligence, and science and technology. The wartime Navy’s demand for them was intense as it struggled to defeat Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and the Japanese in the Pacific. At the end of the conflict, there were well over 8,000 female officers and some ten times that many enlisted WAVES, about 2 ½ percent of the Navy’s total strength. In some places WAVES constituted a majority of the uniformed naval personnel and many remained in uniform to help get the Navy through, the post-war era. On June 12, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Public Law 625, the “Women’s Armed Services Integration Act”, which approved regular and Reserve component status for women in the military and disbanded the WAVES.
Women are an essential part of our nation’s military tradition. Throughout the U.S. Navy’s 238 years’ of history, its female Sailors have steadily integrated into jobs that were once opened only to males. Earlier this year, following a unanimous recommendation by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta announced the end of the direct ground combat exclusion rule for female service members. As part of the new policy, the services are reviewing about 53,000 positions now closed by unit but that will be open to women who meet standards developed for the positions. Women make up about 15 percent, or nearly 202,400, of the U.S. military’s 1.4 million active-duty personnel. Over the past decade, more than 280,000 women have deployed in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and 152 of them have died*. Today is a great day to celebrate the accomplishments of Women through our nation’s history.
*Pellerin, Cheryl (2013). Dempsey: Allowing Women in Combat Strengthens Joint Force. American Forces Press Service.
For more information on the history of women in the Navy, please visit the NHHC website: http://www.history.navy.mil/special%20Highlights/Women/Women-index.htm