Within the duration of World War II, women in the US progressed from second class citizens with barely more than the right to vote to full-fledged members of society with all the rights, responsibilities, and benefits due men with the exceptions of equal pay and active-combat participation. Women began the war years hearing that they were unfit for military service and left WWII hearing the war could not have been won without them – so much so, that the military did not want to release them from service at war’s end.
Massachusetts Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers introduced Public Law 77-554, which President Roosevelt signed on May 15, 1942, establishing the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. The women recruited to fill these ranks would take over the mostly clerical jobs in the Army to free more men for active combat duty. Less than a year later (January 1943), the WAAC was so efficient that Congresswoman Rogers, along with the Director of the WAAC Oveta Culp Hobby drafted a bill to establish the Women’s Army Corps, giving women military status with several limitations. President Roosevelt signed this as PL 78-110 on July 1, 1943. When WWII was over, women were to be released from duty, but they had become vital to the services, so President Harry S. Truman, on June 12, 1948, signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act (PL 625).
By 1979, women had become such an integral part of the US military that an amendment to FY 1979 Defense Procurement Authorization Bill dissolved the WAC and President Jimmy Carter signed the PL 95-485.
Six years from WAAC to the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, and a short thirty years until a gender-unified military: a phenomenally brief time in the span of human history.
Was it the service which changed women or had women been gradually changing and PL 77-554 just the beginning of the documentation of this progress?
The socially accepted role of women has changed drastically over the millennia, as has the role of men. Neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess links the pendulum swing of masculine and feminine roles in women and men to the predominant hemisphere of the human brain during each era. When humans relied more on the right hemisphere, society was matriarchal, imaginative, creative, emotionally-driven, and used pictographs as written communication. The neurological shift to left-brained dominance is marked by a society that was logical, linear, patriarchical and used phoneme-grapheme symbols (alphabets) as a form of written communication. The Roman Empire corresponded with the upsurge of the left-brained society just as the Renaissance heralded the upsurge of the right-brained. Then came the “burning times”: roughly four hundred years during which intelligent, assertive women and men were burned at the stake, decimating the “gene pool” of right-brained members of society. The last person to be burned at the stake was a French woman in 1840.
In the century following, humankind experienced the Western Expansion in the US and explosive colonialism throughout the rest of the world. Survival depended on women and men who could adapt and explore and make intuitive leaps. Politically, women earned the right to vote and mantled with this responsibility, surged forward to help lead the US, Britain, and certain other countries toward greatness.
Women in France, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia became part of the Armed Forces with WWI. In the US, women were part of the medical side of the military. Only when industries recognized and actively sought out women as factory workers did the US military seem to take notice.
Women have fought for independence during the Western Expansion, earned wages in factories during the Industrial Revolution, and struggled magnificently to keep families alive during the Great Depression. As WWII raised its shaggy head, women were ready to step into the fray as equals in a society which – also – was ready to greet them as equals.
The women who bravely served and continue to serve in the military as well as the men who recognized and helped fight for their continued equality cannot be praised enough. PL 77-554, incarnated as the WAAC, WAC, SPARS, and WAV, to name just a few, proved that the pendulum has begun its tenuous swing back from the burning times to an era during which all people, no matter which gender, will work as they should – in equality for a better world.