WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services Unit) The United States entered WWII in 1941 and soon faced a serious shortage of manpower in the military. Congress, along with public interest and advocacy from various National organizations, forced the Department of the Navy (over considerable internal resistance) to start accepting women into their service to augment the many thousands of men already active in the war effort. On June 24, 1942, Congress passed an act to create a women’s reserve as a branch of the Naval reserve; to be governed by the same rules and privileges and limited in that women could only work non-combat duty in the continental U.S. The idea was to free trained Naval men from desk jobs in order to increase the active fighting force–thus the rallying theme, “Free a man to fight.” The new women’s Naval Reserve units were called the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Services) and, with its sister Coast Guard Reserve the SPARS, proceeded to immediately set up training schools at many colleges and universities across the country. Basic training sites were located in Oklahoma (Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College at Stillwater), Iowa (Iowa State Teacher’s College at Cedar Falls), Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin at Madison), Indiana (University of Indiana at Bloomington), and New York state (Hunter College in New York City). Officer training sites were established in Massachusetts at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, and at Smith College in Northampton.
The creation of the WAVES represented a fundamental change that was occurring in American society as the war effort increased. Women were moving from the home into the work force and gaining increasing independence. In WWI, 11,275 women served in the Navy, mainly in secretarial and office positions, but they were not recognized nor was their service publicized, and no formal program existed for their training. In 1942, for the first time women were in uniform, earning the same pay, doing the same work, following the same rules, and receiving the same respect as Navy men. The publicity surrounding the WAVES focused on their independence, intelligence and equality with their male counterparts. However, the naval officers took care to remind everyone of their gender when designing their uniforms. Pants were vetoed in favor of skirts, fitted jackets, and stack heeled shoes that served to emphasize the femininity of the recruits. Women came to the WAVES from all sections of society, bringing a wide variety of skills and experience. Originally, black women were banned from the WAVES, creating a great deal of friction at some of the training schools. The President lifted the ban in 1944 and later that year the first black female officers graduated from the Smith College training school.
By the end of the war over 83,000 women were serving in the Navy, a number significantly over the original estimate of 11,000. They filled positions such as parachute riggers, pharmacist’s mates, instrument flying trainers, store keepers, radio dispatchers, clerks, mechanics, lab technicians, mail carriers, decoders, and navigators. Most of the officers were restricted to the rank of lieutenant with the notable exception of Captain Mildred McAfee (the president of Wellesley College) who was the director the WAVES. Soon after peace was declared in 1945, the WAVES and SPARS programs were dismantled and the women who had been in the Navy returned to their homes or civilian jobs.
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