1942: WAVES and WOCS
The Navy's WAVES, Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, began on 20 July 1942 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Public Law 689 establishing the Women's Reserve, amending the Naval Reserve Act of 1938.
Despite the successful and beneficial service of volunteer women during WWI, the 1925 Naval Reserve Act restricted enlistment to men. Exigencies of war and opposition from navy bureau chiefs including Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz meant continued exclusion even as war in Europe raged. It would not be until October 1941, under the aegis of Chief of Naval Operations Harold R. Stark, that the Navy would support the recruitment of women. The WAVES Act restricted women to continental U.S. shore duty and limited officer billets but ensured that female recruits would receive the same pay as men of the same rank.
The Navy nearly found itself overwhelmed by the response from women: over 27,000 enlisted in the first year and nearly 100,000 served during the war. They served
Some women who joined the WAVES had mothers who served a Yeomanettes in WWI, including Rhode Island native Mary Catherine Sullivan, whose oral history is included in this exhibition.
In 1945, newly appointed Women's Naval Reserve Commander, Commander Jean Tilford Palmer, began work to extend women's roles in the Navy beyond wartime. She had the support of Fleet Admiral Nimitz, who, despite earlier opposition to women in the Navy, testified before Congress as to the WAVES "superior work" during the war and argued in favor of a permanent status for women. Passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act in 1948 ensured women a continued role in the Navy.
This exhibit highlights a few elements of life as a WAVE: the pride a certificate of service, like that issued to Jane Nesbitt, the attention paid to the uniform, through the Guide Right uniform handbook, and the camaraderie and training necessary to be a member of the WAVES, seen in photographs.
The WAVES uniform was designed by Mainbocher, a French born designer. Featuring navy blue wool for winter and pin-striped seersucker for summer, some joked that the uniform alone increased recruiting.
The Naval Historical Collection's Women in WWII Oral History Collection includes a eighty-five interviews, conducted by the Naval Historical Collection Oral History Program, with women who served in the WAVES, SPARS, and Marines (WR) during the Second World War.
Women's Officer School
During WWII over 8,000 women became officers in the U.S. Navy. When the Navy formalized these ranks in 1942 and extended women's roles in the military past 1945, the Navy established its first Women's Officer School at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts on 28 August 1942. To be officers, women had to have at least two years work or college experience, with a preference for college graduates, be of good character, and good health.
The Navy selected the United States Naval Base, Newport, R.I. as the site for its Women Officer School WOS). Started in 1949, WOS served as the sole U.S. Navy facility for the training of women officer. The first class of 28 students went on to assignments with the Navy Supply Corps or as General Line Officers. Every year, more billets opened to women and the chance for assignment overseas increased.
The newspaper article, from the Newport Navalog, announces the 1966 opening of the Navy's first women-only officer store in Newport, RI.
The Navy disestablished Women Officer School in 1973, fully integrating male and female officer candidate training through the Officer Candidate School, which is still located in Newport, R.I.
To learn more about the Women Officer School and the women who attended, ask about Manuscript Collection 33, U.S. Women Officers School Collection.