When the kicked into action in 1939, countless husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons flocked to the front lines to combat the Axis Powers driven by Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. However, men weren’t the only ones out there making history. While Hitler mocked the Allied forces for their “degenerate” use of women in the war, it was these very women who helped us triumph. Whether it was their upbeat efforts back home, or their undercover intrigue within spy networks, women in World War II were remarkable heroes.
Efforts on the American Homefront
In 1941—after the events of Pearl Harbor—America finally joined the war effort, and women stepped up to the plate in invaluable ways. Short of supplies, labor, and morale, America relied heavily on the women who were left behind on home soil.
With a large percentage of its citizens overseas at war, the American government instituted rations in order to ensure they could supply their troops with what they needed. This meant that food, clothing, and applicable industrial materials were in short supply for civilians. Women rallied through the tight times, developing resourceful ways to make up for what they lacked. Victory Gardens provided them with enough produce to make their rations last longer; scrap drives brought in rubber and aluminum household products that could be repurposed by the defense industry.
More urgent than the need for materials was the need for workers to labor on those materials. With an overwhelming number of vacancies in the workforce, millions of women stepped into jobs as farmers, “”, and factory workers. Most of us are familiar with the patriotic visage of , created to boost women’s confidence in their ability to navigate the physical challenges and inherent dangers of factory life, and bring women into the workforce with a sense of duty. Women even took up jobs in the sports and entertainment fields, which lead to the creation of groups like .
Women in World War II also came together to join volunteer organizations, such as the American Red Cross and the United Services Organization. Women involved with the American Red Cross collected blood donations, which were vital for medical needs both at home and overseas. USO hostesses would frequent clubs around the country, making servicemen feel at home with wholesome dances, card games, or conversation—often times seeing these men only once before they shipped off to a deadly conflict.
On the Battlefield as Nurses and Army Corps
Most of the women in World War II joined the military effort by taking up basic clerical positions, thereby freeing up men for the front lines. However, some went on to accomplish impressive tasks generally unexpected of women at the time. Some became translators within the Naval Intelligence, while others acted as photographers, chemists, engineers, and even non-combat pilots. The all-black, all-female was smack dab in the middle of it all, delivering mail abroad to troops, government personnel, and volunteers.
Around 650,000 British women were involved in the war through the Women’s Royal Naval Service, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, and the Auxiliary Territorial Service. Winston Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary, served in the ATS, as well as Elizabeth Windsor—better known as Princess Elizabeth. Before her rise to Queen, Elizabeth was trained as a driver and mechanic and was promoted to the rank of Junior Commander shortly before the end of the war.
Nurses were in the most danger. They dedicated themselves to tending to the wounded, which meant they were always close to the front lines, suffering artillery and aircraft fire. Beyond that, the conditions in which they lived were often as harsh as the troops'—beleaguered by harsh temperatures and unforgiving elements.
Over the course of the war, 16 American nurses died as a result of direct enemy fire. Sixty-eight American servicewomen in the Philippines were captured as Prisoners of War. In recognition of the great efforts of women in World War II, more than 1,500 nurses were decorated for bravery, while another 500-plus women were awarded combat decorations.
Spies Behind Enemy Lines
Not all women’s efforts were recognized during wartime, but discretion is required for espionage. Throughout all of the Allied forces, women were making huge leaps and bounds in spy agencies. In the Office of Strategic Services of America, Churchill’s Special Operations Executive, MI6, and the French Resistance women were utilized for their as-yet-unrecognized courage and cunning.
Within the spy agencies, women were applauded for many of the traits embedded in them through socialization. They were believed to have an easier time blending in, possessing a naive countenance which was a blessing in high-risk courier roles. Their sexuality made them convincing to recruits, and their empathy made them fantastic support systems. Women took advantage of these perceived "feminine" abilities to identify strategic opportunities that ultimately turned the tide of war.
The Second World War had a generation of women spies who crossed enemy lines without fear, planting bombs, stealing information, and sowing the seeds of conflict in the opposing forces. They set up safe houses and exposed traitors. They sabotaged missions and rescued soldiers. Many of these spies suffered torture and even death in their pursuit to win the war, and yet even today, their efforts are often overlooked.
Soviet Night Witches
Across all of the Allied Powers, women in World War II were restricted from seeing combat. However, that changed in the Soviet Union in 1941, with the creation of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Under the cover of darkness, 80 women in flimsy planes risked harassment, frostbite, and death to drop bombs on Nazi forces. The Germans called these fearless fighter pilots Nachthexen—Night Witches—and hated and feared them beyond description.
Despite every disadvantage—a lack of radios, an absence of guns, ill-fitting uniforms, and subpar air crafts—the Night Witches embraced stealth and clever strategies. Flying low over enemy territory, the Regiment would turn their engines off and coast to remain undetected. They would fly in groups of three in maneuvers meant to distract. In worst case scenarios, they would make their slow planes take sharp turns that larger, more equipped crafts couldn’t cut.
Despite flying in highly flammable and indefensible planes, the Night Witches made a monumental impact on World War II. During the successful completion of 30,000 bombing raids, these brave fighter pilots dropped over 23,000 tons of munitions upon Nazi forces.
After the War
Unfortunately, after the conclusion of the war, the majority of working women were expected to slink back to their stilted pre-established roles. Though most women were eager to maintain their place in the workforce, the return of male workers and lower demand for military production led to widespread layoffs. Women—and African-American men—who had served in the military faced resistance when they tried to claim their veteran benefits. Despite the great sacrifices and the courageous acts of women in World War II, most of their efforts went without acknowledgment or thanks.
But today, we have the opportunity to right past wrongs and finally celebrate the groundbreaking contributions of these female veterans. Through their great strides, modern-day women are allowed to exhibit their incredible selflessness and serve in even greater capacities. Though there are many hurdles left to jump, women have proven—and will continue to prove—that they are unstoppable forces in their own right.
Featured photo: Wikimedia Commons