American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia

American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia

American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia

American Women during World War II: An Encyclopedia


American Women during World War II documents the lives and stories of women who contributed directly to the war effort via official and semi-official military organizations, as well as the millions of women who worked in civilian defense industries, ranging from aircraft maintenance to munitions manufacturing and much more. It also illuminates how the war changed the lives of women in more traditional home front roles. All women had to cope with rationing of basic household goods, and most women volunteered in war-related programs. Other entries discuss institutional change, as the war affected every aspect of life, including as schools, hospitals, and even religion.

American Women during World War II provides a handy one-volume collection of information and images suitable for any public or professional library.


I have been reading and writing and thinking about women and World War II for most of four decades. It began when I was very young and joined NOW, the National Organization for Women. At a meeting of our chapter on Massachusetts’ South Shore, two women who were appreciably older than the rest of us got into a rather heated argument about whether the WAC or the WAVES was the superior women’s military corps. Neither I nor anyone else my age had a clue about this.

Our NOW chapter is no longer extant (and I’ve lived in Florida for three decades), but we built a child care center that still is extant. This happened partly because of another older woman, who told us that the child care centers were routine at coastal shipyards during World War II. Again, that was news to us: no one ever told us that this particular wheel, so important to employed women, already had been invented—and almost literally in our own backyard. I resolved that when I finished my first book, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840–1930, I would explore World War II.

I learned some things, and in 1995, the Council on America’s Military Past invited me to speak at their annual convention. The several hundred people who attended were overwhelmingly male, and most were high-ranking officers who had added graduate degrees in history to their credentials. Frankly, I was nervous and feared they would accuse me of overstating the case for women. Dread swept over me when hands shot up as soon as I stopped talking. The president called on the highest-ranking man first, a two-star admiral. “You didn’t say enough about the Navy Nurse Corps,” he began; “my wife was in the Navy Nurse Corps, and they …” Not a negative word was said. Instead, every man was eager to point out more positive things about women, things that they had not thought about in a while. It was clear that this knowledge was in the backs of brains, and they just needed prompting to pull it out.

It is silence, indeed, as well as a lack of big-picture thinking, that causes the exclusion of women in historic narratives, not malice—and certainly not a lack of material. Sharing such information was the aim of the California-based National Women’s History Project (NWHP) when it began in the 1980s. Because of the dedication of these women, almost everyone now knows that March is Women’s History Month. I served as a board member of NWHP, as well as of the National Women’s History Museum (NWHM).

Again, it was World War II that was the connection: NWHM, chartered in 1996, did an exhibit on “Rosie the Riveter” as an example of the many topics that should be included in public history. NWHM, based in Washington, D.C., is getting closer to its goal of building such a museum on or near the National Mall.

Somewhat earlier, I had become a charter member of Women in Military Service to America, Inc. I’ve never served in the military (and indeed, marched with my husband, a former Army officer, in demonstrations against the Vietnam war), but I am proud to be associated with WIMSA and especially its founder, retired Air Force Brigadier General Wilma Vaught. If limited to one person who has done the most to honor the women of World War II, I believe that General Vaught is the singular best choice.

The memorial that she and WIMSA built in Arlington National Cemetery and especially their archives have been invaluable sources of information for many years. Longtime curator Britta Granrud and former historian Judith Bellafaire routinely answered my questions, and their library feels like a second home. They have done an excellent job of assembling rare books from the era, as well as recent memoirs—and I am particularly grateful for the latter. Literally dozens of World War II women recently have found their voices and published their wartime experience, sometimes at their own expense. Without expectation of reward, they sat down and worked through their memories of times that often were physically hard and emotionally difficult. You will find many such titles in the bibliography.

Sharing wartime experience remains important because, despite the hard work of many feminists, both male and female, much of the public remains ignorant of the many contributions that women have made throughout American history. Most people probably know more about the World War II era than any other—but much of that is filtered through the rose-colored lens of Hollywood. Movies and music have created a wartime image in many minds, but the devil always is in the details and Hollywood’s details usually are foggy. The aim of this book is to provide information that too often is lacking—and especially to add detail on topics and individual women too often overlooked.

A few examples: As recently as the Persian Gulf War, television commentators breathlessly worried about the possibility of female prisoners of war—making obvious their ignorance of the fact that thousands of American women were . . .

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