PRIDE of the WACs: Sex and Sexuality during WWII

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Officers and enlisted women of 3rd WAC Co. are shown in front of company area. Accession Number P0003/01-#F-10899

Changing Perspectives during WWII

As mentioned in some previous blogs, World War II was the first time in US history that women were allowed to officially enter the military in any major capacity, outside of Nursing. This change brought many white, middle-class women into the labor force for the first time and opened up opportunities to women and people of color in jobs that would otherwise be denied to them. The Women’s Army Corps or WAC (originally the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps) was the only one of these groups to integrate women into its corresponding military branch fully. However, in the 1940s, there were much stricter ideas of gender norms, gender expression, and heteronormativity. This meant there was significant pushback against the idea of women joining the military, as this was viewed as the epitome of masculine spaces. As a result, many suggested that women did not belong in the military, despite many women joining the WAC (and other groups) and excelling in their new roles.

The Slander Campaign

There was a lot of concern about what women joining the military might mean. A slander campaign arose between 1943-1944, about 1-2 years after the forming of WAC/WAAC, which claimed that women who joined the WAC were either promiscuous or lesbians. These rumors were sourced from several places. One is a prominent newspaper article on the WACs claiming that WACs would receive free prophylactic equipment, just as the male GIs did. However, this was inherently false, one of the many double standards that women in the military were held to.    Read more

WAVES Trailblazers: Lt. j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African-American WAVES officers

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Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Harriet Ida Pickens (left) and Ensign Frances Wills photographed after graduation from the Naval Reserve Midshipmen’s School (WR) at Northampton, Massachusetts, in December 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

With this blog post, I’ll be taking us back, once again, to World War II. You may already be familiar with the WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, which functioned as the women’s reserve branch of the Navy during WWII. While we did have a previous blog post on the WAVES and what some of their members did when serving at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE), with this blog I’d like to delve a little deeper, and talk about two specific WAVES: Lt j.g. Harriet Ida Pickens and Ensign Frances Wills, the first African American women to join the WAVES, and the first African American officers in the WAVES. 

We often think of WWII as being a general call to arms, an “all hands on deck” time in our history. Despite this sentiment and the genuine need for troops,  the military often barred or refused to enlist African Americans. While the Women’s Army Corps (or the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps until 1943) and Army Nurse Corps allowed African American to enlist in 1942, they were both segregated institutions. The Navy’s WAVES, the Coast Guard’s SPARS, and Navy Nurse Corps did not integrate for several more years. Despite the racist policies and practices put in place by the military, many African Americans (and BIPOC) continued to fight against these bigoted policies and attempted to enlist.    Read more

HRPE: The American Red Cross

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Two American Red Cross volunteers hand out donuts to soldiers. Accession # P0003-01–L-16193

We return to our research on the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE) with the American Red Cross. The Red Cross played a vital role in maintaining morale and the mental health of those in the military, especially those abroad. During World War II, the Red Cross was the only civilian service organization authorized to work with overseas military personnel, and in fact began providing aid to civilian victims of the war in Europe before the US entered the war in 1941. Red Cross members were a mix of volunteers and employees, who served both at home and abroad. The Red Cross provided supplies, aid, and refreshments to all those who needed it. Many volunteers signed up to be nurses aids through the Red Cross. However, during WWII the Red Cross was probably most famous for their free donuts, to the point that many volunteers were referred to as ‘Donut Dollies’! 

Like many organizations at the time, the American Red Cross held applicants to a very high standard. Female volunteers had to be college graduates, at least 25 years of age, have excellent reference letters and pass physical examinations. The application standards were so high, only 1 in 6 applicants were accepted. After accepting the volunteer position, women were then sent for training in Washington D.C. before being assigned a position on the Homefront or abroad.    Read more

Hampton Roads during WWII: the WAVES

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Celestial pathfinder Waneta Miller handles a sextant.

Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES) was the women’s branch of the Naval Reserves during World War II. The WAVES was created on July 30, 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Navy’s Women’s Reserve Act into law. Similar to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) the WAVES was enacted to allow women to take over certain jobs in the Navy and free up men for sea duty. WAVES were allowed to enlist and were then able to apply for officer’s candidate school. However, it was implied that at the close of WWII, the WAVES would be disbanded.  Mildred H. McAfee served as the first director of the WAVES, beginning at Lt. Commander and was eventually promoted to Captain. 

Women were first able to enlist in the Navy Reserves in World War I as Female Yoemen. This program began in 1917, and the women who joined enlisted for the same reason that women joined the WAVES in WWII; patriotism and a desire to help end the war earlier. Female Yeomen were disbanded in 1920, and nurses remained the only women in the navy until 1942, when the WAVES were created.    Read more

Hampton Roads During WWII: USO Clubs

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Dance floor at Service Club C. Naval Ammunition Depot Band played for the benefit of Enlisted men & their ladies to gave a round of applause to Lt. Burgess for his efforts in making the evening a success. (archive number P0003/01-#J-9176)

While the most recognizable way for individuals to serve their country at times of war is through the service branches, there have historically been many other ways in which people served their country abroad and at home. For example, the United Service Organizations, better known as USO, a nonprofit-charitable organization which provides leisure facilities and shows to United States Armed Forces was founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1941, to “unite several service associations into one organization to lift the morale of [the] military and nourish support on the home front” (USO.com/about).

In fact, during World War II, there were estimated to be about 3,000 USO clubs worldwide, and Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation was no exception. USO clubs helped soldiers feel at home and gave them the opportunity to step away from the job and the realities of war. They provided leisure, like dances, ping pong tables, and other games; entertainment, sometimes local bands or even Hollywood celebrities would make an appearance (!); and they often had a snack bar, too, selling sandwiches, smokes and soda (but not liquor!) to service people.   Read more