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What Were the WAVES?

The WAVES, or Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, were a dedicated branch of the U.S. Navy during WWII. These courageous women took on vital roles, from code-breaking to piloting aircraft, freeing men for combat while shattering gender barriers. Their legacy is a testament to bravery and equality. How did their service change the course of history? Continue reading to uncover their impact.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The WAVES were women who served in the United States Navy during the Second World War. These women had equal status with their male Navy counterparts, serving primarily in the United States to free up male members of the Navy for postings overseas. Towards the end of the war, some of the WAVES were also dispatched to other postings in places like Hawaii, but they were kept out of combat positions. The restriction which prevents women from serving in combat positions persists to this day, although an increasing number of positions in the military are open to women.

WAVES is, of course, an acronym, which stands for “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.” Eleanor Roosevelt was a champion of the WAVES, and it was she who pushed Congress to establish this division of the Navy, allowing women who wanted to enlist to do so, and offering them full Navy pay and other benefits. In 1942, Mildred McAfee became the first female commissioned officer in the history of the Navy, and the WAVES was born.

The presence of women in the military has continued to grow since the WAVES of WWII.
The presence of women in the military has continued to grow since the WAVES of WWII.

In contrast with the WAVES, the Army had the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), which was an auxiliary organization, associated with the Army but not fully in it. While WAVES and WAACs performed many similar tasks, it wasn't until 1943 that the WAAC became the Women's Army Corps, according women more equal footing in the Army.

While WAVES didn't perform combat-related tasks, they did do a number of other things, setting the stage for the Women's Armed Service Integration Act of 1948, which allowed women to serve as regular members in the United States armed forces. Prior to this act, women could only serve in the military on a provisional basis; the WAVES, for example, were supposed to be dissolved after the Second World War.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a champion of the WAVES, pushed Congress to establish this division of the Navy.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a champion of the WAVES, pushed Congress to establish this division of the Navy.

The British military also had similar opportunities for women who wished to serve during the course of the war, and many women in the WAVES and their counterparts like the Women's Royal Naval Service distinguished themselves during the course of the war. Some women who served on a provisional basis during the war went on to become career members of the military, and the presence of women in the military has continued to grow; in 2008, the first female four star general was nominated, an extremely significant event in military history and a sign that the brass ceiling might be crumbling.

Frequently Asked Questions

What were the WAVES in the context of U.S. history?

The WAVES, which stands for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, was a division of the U.S. Navy established during World War II. According to the National WWII Museum, the WAVES were created on July 30, 1942, to allow women to serve in the Navy in non-combat positions, freeing men for combat roles. Women in the WAVES served in various capacities, including as nurses, clerks, and communication specialists.

How significant was the contribution of the WAVES during World War II?

The contribution of the WAVES was significant to the U.S. war effort during World War II. By the end of the war, there were over 86,000 members, as reported by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command. These women filled essential roles in the Navy, which allowed more men to serve on the front lines. Their service helped to challenge traditional gender roles and paved the way for future integration of women into the armed forces.

What kind of jobs did members of the WAVES perform?

Members of the WAVES performed a wide range of jobs that were crucial to naval operations. They worked as aviation machinists, control tower operators, cryptologists, draftsmen, pharmacists, photographers, and more. According to the National Park Service, they also held administrative positions such as secretaries and clerks. Their work was diverse and spread across various fields, demonstrating women's capabilities in many previously male-dominated roles.

Were the WAVES allowed to serve on combat ships or overseas?

Initially, the WAVES were restricted to serving within the continental United States. However, as the need for personnel grew, the U.S. government amended the policy. In late 1944, legislation was passed to permit WAVES to serve in U.S. territories, and some were stationed in Hawaii, Alaska, and other locations. Despite this change, they were still not allowed to serve on combat ships, as per the U.S. Navy's official policy at the time.

What was the impact of the WAVES on post-World War II opportunities for women in the military?

The WAVES set a precedent for women's military service in the United States. Their successful integration into the Navy during World War II demonstrated women's ability to contribute effectively to military operations. This experience helped lead to the Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, which granted women permanent status in the military. According to the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation, this act allowed women to serve as full members of the U.S. armed forces, although with some restrictions that would be lifted in subsequent decades.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a UnitedStatesNow researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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    • The presence of women in the military has continued to grow since the WAVES of WWII.
      By: Burlingham
      The presence of women in the military has continued to grow since the WAVES of WWII.
    • First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a champion of the WAVES, pushed Congress to establish this division of the Navy.
      By: Ritu Jethani
      First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was a champion of the WAVES, pushed Congress to establish this division of the Navy.